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Friday, March 15, 2013

Jim Morris and Hank Brown Discuss Classic Men's Adventure Spoof "Breeder"

For anyone who loves to read, I’ve got a great story for you. Have you ever owned a book that you enjoyed so much, you read it all over again every few years? Have you ever wished you could meet the author and have a conversation with them about that book? Well, folks, that happened for me.

Most people discover Jim Morris’ writing through his most well-known book, the autobiographical War Story. Some come to his prose by way of The Devil’s Secret Name or Fighting Men, from watching Operation Dumbo Drop (based on one of his stories) or from reading some of his magazine articles. I was introduced to his work via a men’s adventure novel which was a breed apart (pun intended) from any military fiction I’d read before. Jim and I discuss what makes it unique below, but I should mention up front that he is a boombastic writer. His prose in this novel especially appeals to me because the style is so much like the way I think and speak and joke around. However it happened, he really locked in on my wavelength.

Breeder has just been re-released in both paperback and e-book formats, and the literary landscape is more picturesque now because of that, so far as I’m concerned. So here’s our dialog:
 
HANK: First of all, Jim, thanks very much for taking the time to discuss this with me. For me, Breeder is one of those books I dust off every few years when I want to escape for a while and recapture the fun I had the first time around. Should a Fahrenheit 451 scenario unfold and jackbooted thought cops came to burn up all my dangerous literature, they'd have to kill me before I let them torch that book. Re-reading it is like catching up with an old friend and snickering together at some of our familiar "in" jokes.

JIM: I had started Breeder in Oklahoma, and when (editor Mike) Seidman took Sheriff of Purgatory, which had been published in a shorter hardback version by Doubleday I figured he'd buy Breeder, so I finished it. They paid me $3500 for it, and if they ever got any fan mail they never forwarded it to me. I was always proud of it, but I had no idea anybody else ever got what I was doing with it. Your review was the first and only reaction I ever got from anybody about it. I have no idea how many books were sold, because I never got any royalties, and nobody ever told me. When I asked Cindy (Manning) to do the cover she told me she liked it a lot, but she never had mentioned it before. I didn't even know she'd read it. Same with my son Crews. When I told him it was coming out again he told me he liked it too, and liked that it was dedicated to him and his brother. So I'm liking this new way of doing business. There may or may not be as many sales, but God knows the royalties are better, and writers have a much more personal relationship with their readers, which makes me really happy.
Back cover--Breeder
HANK: I’ve never been traditionally published, but I suspect this new author-reader dynamic is far superior as well. Also, I’ve never been quoted for a back cover blurb on a paperback, as far as I know. So it’s a double honor that I’m quoted thusly on the latest edition of Breeder. And the fact that I get to grill the author of one of my favorite books is just too friggin’ awesome for words.
This is a little embarrassing: I remembered a story one of your characters (Lady Strange) told the hero about her father, but I forgot where I "heard" it in between readings. I figured it must have been one of my ex-girlfriends, but couldn't figure out which one. (Of all the things I've lost, it's my mind I miss the most. But that gives you an idea how much a part of my long-term memory this book became.)
I'll start with the generic question: What inspired Breeder? Where did it come from or what made you want to write it?

JIM: I read a piece in a newspaper Sunday Supplement section, oh, sometime about 1977. It was about a lab experiment which was basically the Breeder experiment. They bred sterile super-rats and those rats killed off the regular rats and took over their females. There was one breeder super-rat, and their fear was that it would escape the laboratory. I thought that would be a perfect setup for a satire about the exaggerated heroes in men’s fiction. It took a few years before I actually got around to writing it though. The first draft was titled SuperRat. Mike Seidman, my editor at TOR, convinced me that this title would not be a draw.

 HANK: I could second-guess that decision. “SuperRat” hints at the humor and outlandish nature of the novel, and might have drawn Harry Harrison fans thinking it was a spin-off of his Stainless Steel Rat—only to find out it was something even better…IMHO.

This book actually hit the shelves at the twilight of traditionally published men's adventure fiction. I didn't know the genre was being phased out at the time--being stationed at Bragg since the mid '80s there'd never been a shortage of the genre in the Fayetteville bookstores and I just took it for granted that it would always be available. In fact, a lot of that fiction had begun to grate on me. The invincible super-stud with the porn star endowment who could charm any nubile wench into the sack and then spring up post-coitus firing a 20mm cannon from the hip while espousing some sophomoric worldview to make Freud smirk...that had grown stale, striking me as too much like the grandiose self-image of some of the alcoholic Neanderthals I served with. So the way you poked fun at the conventions of the genre was one aspect of Breeder's appeal to me. And yet it was such a subtle spoof that plenty of readers would take it at face value.

I remember a college acquaintance once praising the "genius" of the Batman TV show in the 1960s, because the campy humor flew right over the heads of the kids who watched the show, but it slapped the adults in the face...letting both demographics enjoy it on a level where they were comfortable. While Breeder never approaches that ridiculous flavor of parody, you did walk a tightrope of sorts, crafting a narrative with appeal for both an audience that "gets it," and an audience that assumes this is just Ramsay Thorne's Renegade on steroids with some speculative fiction and social satire thrown in. I'd like to hear why you made that choice.

JIM: Basically I made it for fun. The kind of stuff I read as a kid was science-fiction, mostly. Later I graduated to a more elevated kind of men’s fiction. I was a big fan of Hemingway, James Jones, Vance Bourjaily, Joe Heller of Catch-22 fame... Then, later, in New York, I edited that kind of stuff, but also the men’s series adventure fiction. A lot of it I liked. Jerry Ahern was a good writer, and some others were terrific. My friend Hank Schlesinger wrote really good men’s fiction. But also a lot of it was the purest of crap. And I’ve never liked the formula of formula fiction. Anyway I thought it would be fun to exploit the genre and satirize it at the same time.

HANK: Somewhat related to this general topic, I guess, is the self-reflective comment on the genre early on in Breeder, made via Desmond, the hero's roommate. (How men's fiction protagonists are always uberstuds, never guys like Desmond.)

And I hadn't noticed Dale A. Dye's comment on the original cover until just now that Breeder is cliche'-free. Do you agree? Seems to me the whole point of Breeder is to highlight the cliche's of the genre, and amplify them to a nigh-ridiculous level while at it.

JIM: I’m not sure it’s still a cliché when you exaggerate it out of shape. You’d probably find English teachers who go either way on that. The idea was pretty much to laugh my ass off and keep the adrenalin up at the same time.

HANK: You were successful from where I sit. You had me snickering throughout, but certain parts made me laugh my ass off—like a scene after the recon of the local banks. Clendenning and Lady Strange are deciding which bank they want to rob first, cars they’ll have to steal for the getaway, guards they may have to kill, things that could go wrong resulting in their own deaths…stuff like that. During this discussion she glances at a bank brochure procured during their recon and remarks (and if she didn't make a tsking sound first, she should have), "My, these interest rates are just awful." I almost laughed myself into a stroke.

The way I shopped for reading material in those days went something like this: I drove to the bookstore, found the shelves with what I was in the mood for, and scanned for something that caught my eye. When something did, I'd pull it down, give the cover art the once-over, then read the back cover blurb. If the blurb intrigued me, I'd open it up and thumb through some random pages to determine if the author's style could hold my interest. Depending on my mood, if the book scored high in all criteria, I'd lay down my $3.95 for it (boy, those were the days!).

JIM: What’s neat about that to me is that, as an editor, that’s exactly how I tried to set my books up. I wanted a cover that would catch the eye from say the front door of a 7-11, or at a distance from a book rack in a store. The cover would draw you to the blurbs. The blurbs would draw you to the front matter, and the front matter would suck you into the story. You went the extra step of sampling the prose itself, which means you were an especially smart and dedicated reader. Actually I think you were the kind of reader I lived to reach, which is to say the same kind of reader I was before I got in the biz.

HANK: That is DA BOMM! I don’t think I’ve ever been so expertly baited before.

Breeder Original Cover As I mentioned earlier, I had dialed back a notch or two on my enthusiasm for men's adventure by then, so I was actually browsing the science fiction shelf when I found Breeder. It was a Tor book, with a southwestern landscape in the background of the cover art, and a firefight underway outside a small adobe village. In the foreground was a blond, bare-chested dude making out with what appears to be an Injun babe. Dominating the cover, though, was the hero brandishing an Uzi...inside a test tube.

JIM: So let’s pause a sec and give credit to Royo, the artist. He’s Spanish. I’d liked his covers I’d seen before and asked Mike to use him, which he did, and for which I’m glad. The current cover is by Cynthia Manning, the best commercial artist I’ve ever personally known, and who also has the added distinction of having been my second wife.

HANK: Now I understand how incomplete my own strategies have been. I should have married an illustrator, whose father is an ad executive/marketing genius and mother is a big wig at Amazon or something. (And then be very careful not to piss them off, of course.)

My attention so effectively caught with the cover art, I flipped it over to the back cover blurb, which read:

HE WAS A BREEDER...but he didn't know it. He only knew that America was torn by civil disobedience and strife and that his job was to help settle things down.

HE WAS A SOLDIER...Clendenning knew that, knew tactics, knew weapons. But he didn't know what he had been trained for, what he had been born for. If he had gone to the debriefing, things would have been very different. But Clendenning always did things his own way.

JIM: Another pause to give Mike Seidman credit for that copy. Mike and I had the odd distinction, at that time, of being the only action-adventure editors (I was working for DELL then) who were also veterans. Mike had been a leg MP in XVIII Airborne Corps at Bragg. We had another distinction in common. He had answered a call one morning and actually caught a rapist leaving the scene of the crime. The guy didn’t understand “Halthalthalt,” said very fast and low and so Mike blew his young ass smooth away. So he and I were the only action-adventurers who had ever actually killed somebody. Maybe that’s why he liked my stuff.

HANK: Breeder does have a rather morbid outlook, come to think of it. Maybe that’s another reason it appealed to me so much. I think it would have appealed to most of the grunts I knew at the time (those who were capable of reading/comprehending more than just a Bacardi or Everclear label, that is) as well.

After reading the blurb my eyebrows were definitely raised. So I thumbed through some random pages, and my eyes caught this phrase: "Hot rod Christian Indian Sorcerer." I probably did a double-take. I searched around and read the better part of a couple chapters right there in the store and found that one of the Geebees drove a badass Charger RT. Not one of these butt-ugly four door luxury sedans they call Chargers since the Daimler-Chrysler debacle. A REAL Charger. And another Geebee drove a hopped-up Corvette. That clinched it for me--there was no way I was leaving that store without buying the book. I'm still something of a gearhead but I was a flat-out fanatic in those days, and the only medium in which I could read about street machines was in the automotive enthusiast magazines (Hot Rod, Car Craft, etc.). For some reason, no author ever featured truly wicked machinery like that in novels. As it turned out, those cars played a very minor role in the story, but still I loved the fact that they were included at all. Was this a case of you merely fleshing out the stereotype of those you thought would constitute the corps of a Geebee movement?

JIM: Probably had to do with the fact that one of my favorite things to do in this world is to drive a beautiful, powerful car at a high rate of speed with loud stupid music in the background. I have very little mechanical knowledge, but, oh baby, I know what I like.

HANK (channeling the Big Bopper): Shantilly Lace, she had a purty face…

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. Beautiful, powerful cars ripping up the road in an orgy of high-octane mayhem—that’s freedom, baby!

There were several elements in Breeder that I knew something about. Aside from ROTC and the Rangers, you didn’t go into much detail on many of them, but what details you did include were spot-on (taking into account that this was speculative fiction, of course)—a piece of jargon or some other little nuance here or there—and I really appreciated that. The film makers behind the Fast and the Furious franchise are so blatantly ignorant about the subject matter of their movies that I refer to all their celluloid abominations as “The Lame and the Ludicrous.” Big respect to you as an author because, unlike those Hollywood hacks, you limited yourself to what you could present credibly.

The new cover looks cool. The infant brandishing the AK47 inside the test tube is great. But I still like the original cover, too.


JIM: All credit to Cindy on that. Like I said, she’s the best. But I did write the new cover copy.

HANK: Anyway, in the back cover blurb of the re-release, you now make it clear from the beginning that the breeder's entire upbringing was a charade with your Potemkin Village comment.

The first time I read it, you hadn't made it so slap-in-the-face obvious up front. I remember the first major clue for me was in Chapter One when Clendenning read his own article the paper, in which he opined that college football should be played between different schools instead of between frat houses. Hmm. Then he ambushes a sorority queen who is "glowing" and she utters narry a protest as he ravages her. Double hmm. (I must have forgotten the title of the book I was reading, and the blurb, and was anxious to get to the Charger RT.) Then when Clendenning kills his ROTC instructor in front of a class full of witnesses and there are absolutely no repercussions I did another double-take. I was active-duty enlisted and at the time had never been to college or involved in ROTC at all. Even so, I was fairly confident that this sort of thing just did not happen.

JIM: I wrote those first chapters when I was still in Oklahoma. Later, in the University of Arkansas writing program I put that stuff up for evaluation by the writer’s workshop. I did that with satirical intent too, because some of the people in the workshop were soooo politically correct that I knew the rape scene would give them the leaping fantods, especially one jerk who had no sense of irony whatsoever, and who wrote the most boring prose I’ve ever seen in print. It worked too. He went into high dudgeon mode and called me awful names. Oh, it was so distressing!

Jim Whitehead, who taught the workshop, had to point out that the rape was stylized, and obviously written with satirical intent. But I loved to watch that fool froth at the mouth and flail about.

HANK: One of many reasons I never shared this book with any of my friends in college. Besides, according to your protagonist he didn't commit rapes--they were just "extremely rapid seductions."

I had all sorts of theories swimming around about who was behind Jeff Clendenning’s carefully choreographed childhood, and why they went to such incredible lengths to infiltrate the US Defense forces with Manchurian Officer Candidates who were unaware of their true mission. For some reason I was leaning toward a malevolent extra-terrestrial entity (ironic, considering Jeff’s “Alpha Centauri” comment and your flirtation with the idea of re-writing Breeder that way), so when you revealed the Soviet Union as the culprit, it kinda surprised me. I mean, you almost spelled it out with that Ruskie professor and his experiment with rats, but still I wasn’t quite ready for it. Many readers might have seen it coming, but I still wonder about your choice to reveal more of your cards this time than with the first printing.

JIM: I never really thought of it as a secret. I just needed some cover copy so I ripped it out, and that came with it.

HANK: Maybe it’s an unfair comparison, but I can’t help thinking of Terminator II: Judgment Day. The way the film was put together, the audience had every reason to believe Schwarzenegger was sent to kill John Connor after his cyborg twin failed in the first movie, while the liquid metal Terminator was sent to protect the boy. It would have been a big surprise when Arnie says, “Come wit me if you vant to liff!” Then you realize the roles are reversed. But because of the theatrical trailers, the surprise was blown and everybody knew the deal from before they bought the popcorn. But I digress. Please continue.

JIM: My original intent was to make the controllers the space people out there, something like the Silver Surfer in uniform. In that first scene when Jeff is going for his morning run he was running under two moons. But Mike (Seidman) was the guy who bought it, and his area was not pure sci-fi, but adventure thrillers. He said for him to publish the book it had to be earthbound, so we made the villains the usual suspects for the day, the bad, bad USSR. Since who the bad guys were wasn’t the main point of the book I went with it.

HANK: One of your principle characters is fascinating, to say the least: Brother Fletcher, the Soul Mechanic. He’s a Choctaw/Cheyenne medicine man who’s also a stoner, gearhead, and revolutionary. After first meeting Jeff Clendenning (your protagonist), Brother Fletcher goes into a long diatribe on philosophy and religion, explaining his “Church of Is.” During the ride into town he lets on that he knows Jeff is AWOL (and disguised with his girlfriend’s wig while wearing her cutoff shorts, thong sandals and a Waylon Jennings T-shirt–an obscene get-up for an action hero if I’ve ever pictured one). Then as Jeff adjusts the disguise while getting out of the car, he asks how he looks.

“Like a muscular faggot,” Fletcher replies.

First of all, you slayed me with that line. I laughed so hard I almost blew snot bubbles. But aside from the humorous aspect (for me, anyway), with that scene you expertly nailed the character for the reader. No more introduction is necessary. He’s larger-than-life; flawed; eccentric; opinionated…and also endowed with a degree of legitimate clairvoyance.

Tell me about this character: is he based on a real person? Is he purely symbolic? Had you already begun researching Native American mysticism when you wrote him?

JIM: Well, I’m from Oklahoma, and I’ve met a few guys with some of Brother Fletcher’s characteristics. He’s not that great a jump from people I actually know. “The Church of Is” comes from a joke that I heard from my friend Zoltan Malocsay, that I won’t attempt to reproduce here. Also, I was getting into Castaneda at the time, and was fascinated with Indian medicine. Still am.

HANK: I’ve met guys who remind me of him in some ways—usually Vietnam vets who were curious about how the newfangled Army worked, but mostly wanted to share their own experience and philosophy.

There’s another character who is unforgettable, and who also inspired me into some self-education. When I first read this character’s name, “Littlejohn the Conqueroo,” I wondered what the author was smoking. Ironically, I was already a blues fan and had listened to Muddy Waters’ early stuff a lot; but I didn’t make the connection until I heard Steppenwolf’s cover of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” At that point I went on a researching spree (which was a bit more difficult then because the Internet was unknown outside a select circle of computer geeks) and I learned about “High John the Conqueror Root” as well as its miniature version, “Little John.” I wound up educating myself on hoodoo in general, including the medicine favored by hoodoo practitioners, partially because of what you named this character.

So why did you give him that name?

JIM: “Goin’ Back down (to) the candy sto’, bring back the second cousin, Little John the Conqueroo.” –Bo Diddley from “I’m a Man.”

(Note from former aspiring blues aficionado Hank “Cain’t Dance Worf a Damn” Brown: “I’m a Man” was a thinly-veiled rip-off of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie-Coochie Man.” Muddy got his revenge by blatantly ripping off “I’m a Man” with his “Mannish Boy Blues.” Then a generation later George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” was a thinly-veiled send-up of all of them. But any of the above testosterone-dripping tunes are highly appropriate soundtrack fodder for the sort of men’s fiction lampooned in Breeder.)

BTW, dig how Bo Diddley uses tactical radio procedure to clarify that “main” actually means “man”…

“I spell: M-A-N.”

Well, I guess he should have spelled it Mike-Alpha-November if he was going all the way, huh?

JIM: Gotta tell you: Bo Diddley was the first guy I ever thought was cool. I used to know a Blues drummer here in LA named Fou-Fou, a nickname he picked up in a Belgian whorehouse in the army. I was at Fou’s one day, and the conversation came around to Bo Diddley and I was telling him what I just wrote here. While I was telling him that he fiddled with his phone and then held it out and said, “Tell him yourself,” and I talked to Bo Diddley for a half hour.

So basically what I did (with Littlejohn the Conqueroo) was invent Mister T before he did. When that character came out in The A Team I cracked up. I dreamed you, Mister T.

HANK: I remember thinking one time as I read it: No way! This guy is like Mr. T!
“I don’t hate Jim Morris; I pity the fool! But I welcome the chance to haunt his dreams some mo’!”

But wait… My paperback bears a print date of 1988. Rocky III and The A-Team (starring Mr. T) were early 1980s. When was the book actually written?

JIM: That part was written maybe in 1977-78. Same with the helicopters playing Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” during the attack. At least I think I left that in. I wrote it before Coppola used “Flight of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now, but the book came out after. But I used it anyway, because I thought of it first.

HANK: Hoowah! In your FACE, Coppola and Millius!

Ahem. In your near-future scenario, you had all branches of the US Military combined into the “US Defense Forces.” The uniform was black stretch-jumpsuits and nobody was referred to by rank, only by pay-grade. Talk a little about that choice, if you would.

JIM: Well, I’m old enough to remember when the Air Force became a separate branch, and the Departments of War and Navy were merged into the DOD. There was talk, at that time, of merging the forces, sort of like the way the Canadians and the Israelis do it. That and the habit in the army of people referring to others by their pay grade seemed like something it would be fun to satirize.

HANK: In 1993 and ’94 I met some real-life Geebees. They didn’t call themselves Geebees, maybe because CB radios didn’t play as big a role in their network as in your book, good buddy. And I didn’t meet the “doper” persuasion much–mostly the 2nd Amendment advocates (“gun nuts” to use 0-8 Percival Custer’s term). But I had many conversations with these people, broke bread with them, saw some of them train (I even wrote a character into my last novel, Tier Zero, lifted out of this counterculture­­­­­­)…and as I was introduced to their world I remember thinking to myself: “Jim Morris was some kind of prophet!” Not just about the Geebees, about a whole lot of things, but especially that.

In your book a second Civil War was underway. There were a lot of folks who feared that would become a reality in the mid ’90s. (It’s an even bigger fear right now, BTW.) Please tell me about the Geebees, Civil War II, and how you depicted them in Breeder.

JIM: Well, of course I’d had some contacts with the precursors of the militia movement. Edited Jerry Ahern’s The Survivalist, written for Bob Brown’s Survive magazine, and edited EAGLE magazine, and Harris Pub’s gun magazines. So I had a fair amount of experience with guys with military training who were frothing at the mouth at the way things were. Seemed like something a smart dedicated enemy could exploit to make us destroy ourselves without them having to get dirty.

HANK: Just wait, folks, until you read about the Jewish chapter of this quasi-fictional resistance movement.

If I lived in California, Jim, I’d consider it a privilege to buy you lunch and your fill of beers while we had this discussion face-to-face, with a recording device. But since that is not possible, I’ll stop with the questions now. I very much appreciate your willingness to humor me with this back-and-forth. And I want to thank you for writing Breeder. It’s probably obvious by now that I’m a big fan of this novel. Such a huge fan that I searched for years for other fiction by you, with no success until recently. I’ve read and reviewed your autobiography War Story and your serious war novel Above and Beyond. I have Silvernail on my Kindle already, and you can bet I will eventually find time to read Spurlock: Sheriff of Purgatory. Everything I’ve read from you has been good, and left a mark on me in some way or another.

Getting to finally meet you and converse about fiction, film, Special Forces…and everything else we’ve discussed…has been truly a joy. Thank-you very much.

JIM: You have to realize that everything I’ve done since I was six years old was to work myself into a situation where someone would say something like that to me. Thanks.

HANK: Jim now has his own website you should visit: www.jimmorriswarstory.com. Some great articles and other info there!



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