Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #13: William Diehl (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts. 
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Author William Diehl
The interview with author William Diehl (Sharky's Machine, Chameleon, Primal Fear), a writer who wrote luridly powerful pulp with a political tinge, became a fascinating exercise in self-examination. When I discovered that Diehl was a pacifist who once marched with Martin Luther King in the South during the demonstrations against segregation, I was compelled to find out how such a peaceful man reconciled his polar opposite. To both my surprise and satisfaction, he was more than happy to comply while providing a vivid examination (through his thriller Chameleon) of the growing political mercenary movements in the eighties that would ultimately lead to Waco and Oklahoma City. Diehl would die at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on November 24, 2006, of an aortic aneurysm. At the time of his death, he was working on his tenth novel.

kc: I get the impression that when you sit down to write there's quite a war going on in your head.

wd: That's quite true. I find that subconsciously things from my past keep getting in and coming out of the books. A lot of the critics in reviewing Chameleon have called it one of the most violent books ever written. Yet I'm basically a pacifist. I don't own weapons. I don't even have a gun in the house. I live alone on an island. No doubt that it's a throwback to World War II when I served as a ball-turret gunner. All of those latent aggressions and violence are surfacing now. It has to be that because I'm certainly not interested in becoming active in the things I write about. But I should say that there's nothing about the violence and the weaponry that I depict in Chameleon that isn't really happening today.

kc: In this book, you examine an assassination squad -- a secret terrorist organization that trains at "The Farm" -- What is that?

wd: I knew that "The Farm" existed. I've known about it for several years and I met the man who runs it. He's a guy named Mitch Warbell. One night, we started talking about the place and he told me that while a lot of mercenaries go through the training course, many of these people are bankers and folks going to countries where terrorism is prevalent. They take the course as a self-protective device. That's what triggered the idea. Then I went out and took the course. Over a period of six months, I spent time talking to the instructors. Their stories gave me the basis for the book.

kc: When you were describing a moment ago those latent aggressions and the violence, how does it manifest itself when you are writing a book like Chameleon?

wd: The first chapter of the book was triggered by the Doobie Brothers' song "What a Fool Believes," which I heard on the radio as I was driving home. The song started a lovely little romantic story going in my head. Suddenly, it turned very dangerous and it got very violent. I don't know where it came from. All of a sudden, as I'm working on this romantic idyll, it got very tough. It was then that the story took off.

kc: At the heart of this violent story is a particular code of honour. Where does this come from?

wd: Chameleon is a story about honourable people versus dishonourable people. And I've put at the heart of it the Oriental philosophy of honour. My belief is that the Oriental philosophy of honour is a very positive and uncompromising belief. Whereas in my country, you have to struggle just to be a little bit honest. That's why in my novel Sharky's Machine you have four cops who are basically losers who become winners in the end because they couldn't be corrupted. That's also the story of Chameleon where you have two or three people who are honourable. I'm dealing with knights on white horses slaying dragons. And I still believe that's possible.

kc: Does the writing of action fiction though become a safety valve for your own violent fantasies?

William Diehl
wd: It's indeed a great release. What it is, is playing out your fantasies on paper. For instance, in Chameleon, I developed my own brand of martial arts. What I did was draw stick figures where I could try out the moves -- sometimes in front of a video camera -- and describe them. I really got into it. Then I also got into the method of trying to remember things without taking notes which is what these people in the book could do. I never took it as far as them but I found that if I went into a restaurant and found it fascinating enough to use in a book, I can remember every little detail of it. Then I file it away in my word processor. Often I tell people that I'm a method writer because I actually act things out in the room because you deal with your psyche on paper.

kc: How do you act these things out?

wd: If I'm angry, I go in and write a violent passage for a book. When I come out, I don't even want to step on an ant. If I'm writing about a character that I really like, and I know that the character is going to be killed, I can get depressed for a couple of days. In Sharky's Machine, when Nosh, Sharky's best friend, gets killed, I got into a funk over that and I couldn't write for over three days. I was so upset over having to kill that character. When certain things happen, I react emotionally as it is really happening. It can be draining at times. It's a good thing that I live on an island where my house is a hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean. A lot of times after writing a passage I'll go down to the beach just to calm myself down. What happens is that I get hysterical inside and I can't translate that on paper. How do you describe to anybody the feelings and thoughts that go through your head at times like that? The best thing to do is find a way to get rid of it, once  you've used up the part you need to put on paper.

kc: I'd like to take that a step further. If you resolve certain conflicts within yourself, does it also mean that your writing will change?

wd: Absolutely. My writing changed radically from Sharky's Machine to Chameleon. And a lot of it is in the emotional content of the book. I think Chameleon is a better book than Sharky even though it feels colder. Maybe that's because of what some of the characters do in the story.

kc: Has living on the beach provided the sanctuary needed?

wd: Yeah. I remember when the film of Sharky's Machine had its world premiere in Atlanta. All of the movie stars came and it seemed like the biggest thing since Gone With the Wind. As a result of it, I started to get a celebrity status in Atlanta. I was expected to be places and doing things. This started to really disturb me because I started to lose the independence that I had gained by writing these books. One day, I got on this airplane and flew down to the coast of Georgia and told this real estate agent that I wanted an island. The agent found me one immediately. Now I don't even go to the mainland. I don't even want to leave this place. There's one place there that is like Cannery Row restaurant filled with expatriates and people who just go to escape like me. I go there in the morning, read the newspaper and chat, then I don't see them until the next day. Since I moved there my writing productivity just jumped.

kc: I guess the biggest distinction some would have to make meeting you -- or knowing you -- is to separate the man from the writer?

wd: Probably most writers become very involuted and difficult to deal with when they're working. And I feel that I'm difficult to deal with because I vague-out. I can hold a conversation without even knowing what I'm saying. I'm so used to doing it. When I'm through, I wake up one morning and the book is finished and I have nothing to do. It's a bit of a downer because I've been living with it for so long. Then I go and do crazy things like scuba diving for weeks at a time. It's a schizophrenic way to make a living, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I love the isolation. Nobody can invade it. What other occupation is there where you can be totally isolated and deal with yourself in whatever terms you want to deal with yourself in?

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto in March. He's also facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University continuing February 27th.


  1. I like your interview with William Diehl. I wish you would have completed your project with Talking out of Turn. People die and you feel you know them a little better thru your kind of interview. I like his stories and was sad to no longer be looking forward to his next book. Thank you.

  2. Thank you. It took a year for me to come across your comment. Talking Out of Turn will continue to run on Critics at Large since I couldn't get a publisher interested in the book.