The book sat on the shelf of the third-grade classroom. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was a second-grader, and I’d been herded into the room along with the rest of my class for some reason I don’t remember anymore.
But I still remember the book. The title was “The Freckled Shark.” There was a huge man in a torn shirt holding what could only be described as a ray-gun, against the background of some kind of animal skin.
I was always ready to read about another superhero or spaceman. But the man on the cover didn’t exactly look like a good guy. And his name, in big letters above his head, didn’t sound like a good guy’s name either: Doc Savage.
“To the world at large, Doc Savage is a strange, mysterious figure . . . he is a man of superhuman strength and protean genius . . . In his most exotic adventure, the Man of Bronze encounters the insane money lust of Señor Steel, president-dictator of Blanca Grande (a very unfortunate South American republic); decodes the awful secret of Matacumbe; and sinks — for what may be the last time — into the muddy horror of the primitive jungle.”
For a brief moment, I didn’t know if this Doc Savage was an actual person or not. (In my defense, I was 7 years old.) I didn’t know then that the book was a reprint of an old pulp-magazine story from the 1930s. Or anything about the pulps, which were filled with lurid, sensational stories written fast and cheap by a small army of house authors. I didn’t know then that heroes like Doc Savage and the Shadow were the forerunners of my beloved Superman and Batman. This was the pre-Google era, so information came only in fragments, on paper.
All I knew was that it sounded much more interesting — more alive, more vital, more real — than anything else I’d read up to that point. I begged the teacher to let me take the book home.
She agreed, as long as I returned it first thing in the morning. So I read the entire novel that night. And I decided, deep down, that was the world I wanted to live in: a life filled with adventurers, mad scientists, strange creatures, weird plagues and mysterious plots.
That was the beginning of my life in pulp fiction.
Today, I write my own lurid, sensational stories. My fifth novel, “Killfile,” came out on Aug. 9 from William Morrow. It’s about John Smith, a former CIA operative with the ability to read minds, on the run from a high-tech billionaire who will kill to protect his secrets. I’ve also written books about a vampire secret agent and conquistadors who discover the actual Fountain of Youth.
It is, I admit, a weird way to make a living. My browser history is stacked with the methods of serial killers, Chinese drone specs and instructions on how to build a homemade EMP bomb. I am pretty sure that Homeland Security has me on a watch list somewhere.
It’s not that I didn’t try to become a serious, literary novelist. Since I was 5 years old, all I’ve wanted to do is write stories. To figure out how to do that, I looked first to the books that were closest to me. Before Amazon, that meant the public library and the spinner racks at the supermarket and drugstore. I started with comics, then graduated to cheap paperbacks — the descendants of the pulps. That meant detective stories, horror, sci-fi and sword and sorcery.
Some of them were brilliant, like Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch novels. Others, like the one about the Nazi embryo children with telekinetic powers — well, not so much.
I still learned something from all of them. I learned how to convey information quickly, how to provoke an emotional response in a reader and how to describe characters and settings.
But I was continually told that real writers do not waste their time on heroes and villains and robots and aliens. So as I got older, I put my comics away long enough to read the classics. In college, I attended lectures by post-structuralist theorists, studied the romantic poets and tried to write a deeply meaningful novel about America. I wore a lot of black.
Somehow, it never took. I tore through Stephen King and Michael Crichton in my dorm room while reading Milan Kundera and Joan Didion in public. I loved it when I discovered that Thomas Pynchon included references to Superman and Godzilla in his novels — it was like hiding comics between the pages of a textbook in class. My serious literary novel grew to include a robot zombie, and my adviser suggested turning it into a screenplay.
I got a paying job instead and became a reporter. I covered political scandals, cold-case murders, medical malpractice and gang violence. Later, I watched some tech geeks become billionaires while others crashed and burned. I tried to immerse myself in as much reality as I possibly could, so I could write that big, important novel sometime later.
But pulp fiction pulled me back. Working for a daily paper, I wrote a screenplay in my spare time. It was about a secret government program that took orphans and turned them into covert assassins. I put in all the stuff I still loved from comics and action movies and cult TV shows. To my great surprise, it sold to a studio in two weeks. Finally taking my college professor’s advice, I left journalism and tried screenwriting for a while. Then the Writer’s Guild of America called a strike, and suddenly, I couldn’t even send out a script, let alone sell one. My wife was pregnant, and we’d just bought a new house. (I’ve always had good timing that way.) So I took an idea I had for a movie — about a vampire who fights supernatural forces for the president of the United States — and turned it into a novel. I called it “Blood Oath” and shipped it off to agents, one of whom believed in it enough to take me on as a client.
It sold in a three-book deal, was translated into nine languages and optioned for TV and film. I followed the vampire novels with a book about immortal Spanish conquistadors. And now I’m writing about a former spy with psychic powers.
Don’t get me wrong: I am still amazed by the ability of the writers who can create beauty and drama in the seemingly everyday lives of their subjects. I still burn with envy at the turns of phrase I read from my friends who have the gift of illuminating the small, human moments, who don’t need to use explosions to create drama.
But the line between what counts as literature and what is dismissed as pulp has never been fuzzier. Literary novelists like Justin Cronin, Craig Davidson, and Emily St. John Mandel write about vampires, bioengineered parasites and a post-apocalyptic world. Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman, who started out writing comic books, has created a rich and heartbreaking body of work people will still read a century from now. The teachers who scowled at my funny books have all retired. School libraries now include whole shelves of graphic novels and comic books in an effort to get kids to read. At the same time, adults are picking up Harry Potter and “The Hunger Games” and finding lessons inside that apply to them, too.
I imagine there are still some critics out there sneering at all the lowbrow pop culture that has infected literature. They would probably argue that the real world does not include rogue gods or masked marvels or telepathy, and neither should serious writing. For some reason, I always picture them wearing ascots. Honestly, screw those guys. Reality has this bad habit of outrunning fiction.
Earlier this year, I was working on a script that included a scene where a gang storms a church and beheads a priest in broad daylight. I deleted it because it seemed too insane, even for a guy who writes about vampires and immortals and psychic spies. A couple of weeks ago, it happened in France.
Right now, a reality-TV host is running for president. People are live-streaming shootings over the Internet. A military-trained sniper attacked the police in Dallas, who blew him up with a robot. The Democratic Party has been hacked by Russian cyberpunks. We have a terrorist group that goes by the acronym ISIS, as if they were the bad guys in an old Bond movie. Melting the polar ice caps used to be a supervillain’s plot; now it’s the weather report.
My novels, as strange as they might seem, have their basis in fact. The United States government really did spend millions of dollars on psychic spies during the Cold War. Tech billionaires are now pouring their money into research for an actual Fountain of Youth. Even my vampire story had its beginnings in a historical factoid about President Andrew Johnson pardoning a sailor accused of killing two men and drinking their blood.
That’s the real world. That’s where we live. It makes the books of John Updike, with their evening cocktails and manicured lawns and suburban boredom, seem like sci-fi.
But that’s the great thing about fiction. We use it for entertainment, and we also use it to explain and understand our lives. We only make sense of what has happened to us when we can tell it as a story. I’ve used my fiction to deal with 9/11, the War on Terror, aging, death, wealth, poverty and a host of other issues. I just happened to include the undead and werewolves and spies while I did it.
Five books in, this is the one lesson I can say I’ve learned, the one thing I can tell any aspiring writer: Write what you want. Even if it includes lizard people or Atlantis. If people don’t like what you like, write it again, and make it better until they do. But never be ashamed of your enthusiasms.
We’re all living in a pulp-fiction world now. And we’ll all need better stories to make sense of it.