I have no idea how many UWaterloo English alumni have entries on both Wikipedia and IMDB, but David Morrell does. Even more impressive is his time on the New York Times bestseller list. Read on to find out how it all happened. And thank you to David for participating in Words in Place. –JLH
JLH: You were among the first to graduate from UWaterloo: can you talk a bit about what it was like on campus and in the English department at that time?
DM: I was a University of Waterloo student from 1962 to 1966, majoring in English literature. In those days, St. Jerome’s was a college within the university. My classes were divided between the two institutions, and I spent a lot of time walking back and forth. There was plenty of open space in those days. Going to classes was almost like a walk in the country.
JLH: You’ve had a very successful career: when you think about your trajectory, do you see moments that were really pivotal?
DM: There’s no question that my training at the University of Waterloo was crucial to my later writing career. The intensity and the extent of an English honors program back then seems unbelievable to me now. While the first year was devoted to electives, the remaining three years required courses that covered every aspect of English literature—from the Anglo-Saxons, to Chaucer and Middle-English literature, to Shakespeare, on and on. There were only four students in the honors program, which meant that we received an enormous amount of attention. Professor Larry Cummings was the head of the English program at St. Jerome’s, and he somehow convinced us to agree to a tutorial program in which we taught the classes while he supervised us. That meant writing a 3,000-word essay for each of five courses, with each of us making a presentation every fourth class. It seems impossible, but we did it. I learned discipline, organization, and determination to a degree that I didn’t think was possible. In the fall of 1966, when I went to the United States to attend grad school in the English department at Penn State, I discovered that my B.A. in English from the University of Waterloo was the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the U.S. Because I had much less academic pressure, I was able to devote myself to fiction writing, and the result, when I graduated from Penn State, was First Blood, the novel in which the character of Rambo was created. It’s interesting that a Canadian created so American a character. I think it’s because I brought a foreign perspective to the near-civil-war that the Vietnam War caused in the United States.
JLH: What do you value most about your career?
DM: Everything I’ve done, both writing and teaching, has been about the desire to see life as a journey in which I keep looking ahead and trying to become a fuller person.
JLH: What do you wish you’d known when graduating?
DM: I wish I’d had the perspective of knowing that life is composed of peaks and valleys and that being impatient doesn’t accomplish anything. With each day, we ought to try to do the best we can, and if at the end of the day, human imperfection causes us to fail to accomplish that goal, there’s always the next day.
JLH: Can you tell us a bit about what you are writing now?
DM: In 2009, my 14-year-old granddaughter Natalie died from a rare bone cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, which also killed my 15-year-old son Matthew. Only a couple of hundred people contract the disease each year in Canada and the United States. It’s inherited. This double grief caused me to look for a huge project to distract me. I became fascinated by a controversial Victorian literary personality, Thomas De Quincey, who was the first person to write about drug addiction (in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1821). De Quincey’s opium nightmares led him to conclude that the human mind is composed of “chasms and sunless abysses, level upon level, in which alien natures can live undetected.” This sounds like Freud, but Freud didn’t publish his psychoanalytic ideas until almost 80 years later. De Quincey also wrote a famous essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” in which he praised the great murderers of history for their artistry, particularly the perpetrator of the sensational Ratcliffe Highway mass murders that terrified England far more than the murders of Jack the Ripper. Trying to distance myself from my grief, I decided to write a series of Victorian mystery/thrillers that feature De Quincey’s fascination with murder and his pre-Freudian insight into the twisted depths of the human mind. It was a terrific risk to switch from contemporary North American topics, but I couldn’t resist becoming a mental time traveler, and the novel Murder as a Fine Art received some of the best reviews of my 42-year career. Publishers Weekly chose it as one of the top ten mystery/thrillers of 2013.
JLH: Finally, what are you currently reading?
DM: I’m still mentally time-traveling. My goal in Murder as a Fine Art was to try to make readers believe that they are literally on the harrowing fogbound streets of Victorian London. That meant I needed to go back to the intense literary-research training that I was privileged to acquire at the University of Waterloo and St. Jerome’s College. It’s no exaggeration to say that for several years, the only books I read were related to Victorian London—histories, novels from the period, cultural analyses, and De Quincey’s thousands of pages of brilliant prose. I basically taught myself the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the Victorian era. My office has shelves and shelves of books on the topic. I even had the honor of lecturing about De Quincey in his hometown of Manchester, England, and then in Grasmere in the Lake District where De Quincey lived in Dove Cottage after Wordsworth moved. I couldn’t have done any of this without the University of Waterloo and St. Jerome’s College.
Author photo credit: Jennifer Esperanza