Interview with Steven PressfieldPosted by Goodreads on September 18, 2008
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Steven Pressfield is a modern-day Homer, a writer interested in epic struggles, bloody battles, and legendary warriors. A former U.S. Marine, Pressfield fought his way through 17 years of odd jobs until he earned his first paycheck as a writer. He is now an established author of historical fiction, with notable expertise in the ancient world. Gates of Fire, his best-known work, transports the reader to the battlefield of Thermopylae, where a small Spartan army famously held its ground against an immense Persian force. His newest novel, Killing Rommel, leaps forward a few thousand years to World War II. Pressfield told Goodreads what inspired this change of scene.
Goodreads: You've written six books of historical fiction and one novel, tackling a broad range of subjects. You've explored ancient fables and taken a close look at the nuances of golf. Your lastest book, Killing Rommel, is set in North Africa during World War II and follows a British book publisher who is assigned to the Long Range Desert Group. This battalion of soldiers is charged with eliminating the legendary German commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, a.k.a. Desert Fox. What inspired you to tell this particular story?
Steven Pressfield: I was researching Alexander the Great. I wanted to know about his cavalry tactics. Unfortunately, the most recent ancient source for Alexander was written 400 years after his death. So I started researching modern cavalry tactics, figuring they probably haven't changed very much. This led me to Frederick the Great, to Napoleon, to U.S. Civil War generals — and to Erwin Rommel. It turns out armored tank tactics are not so different from horse cavalry. I got hooked on Rommel. Then when I heard of this British commando outfit called the Long Range Desert Group who fought against him using unarmored Chevy trucks and Jeeps, I fell in love with the name and with the swashbuckling nature of the behind-the-lines desert war that they fought. That was it!
GR: With the exception of The Legend of Bagger Vance, all your previous novels have taken place in the ancient world: the Spartans in 480 B.C., Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., Alcibiades in 450 B.C. Is there more pressure when you tell a story that lives on in people's memories (like World War II)? How is the research process different?
SP: A lot more pressure! In fact, I just got an e-mail from a reader ten minutes ago, citing all the historical mistakes I made in Killing Rommel. People remember — and they can check up on you, which is a lot harder when the period is two thousand years ago. So yes, the research had to be much more diligent. I spent three or four times the hours on Killing Rommel as on any of my books set in the ancient past.
GR: Tell us about your movie-style trailer for Killing Rommel. You actually went out into the desert to shoot a short film about your book, and now that clip is on your website, YouTube, and Goodreads. How has getting the word out changed since your previous novels? Is it working?
SP: There's a crisis for writers these days. No more book reviews. Newspapers have cut back drastically. How can a writer get the word out that his book even exists? I decided to do a video and get it up on YouTube, link it to WWII sites, etc. I went a little crazy. I have some good friends who are filmmakers back East. They came out to the California desert, at Dumont Dunes, where dune buggies and sandrails go on weekends; we had real WWII re-enactor vehicles driven by the Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society. We acquired WWII stock footage and spent three days shooting in the desert, a sort of mini-History Channel doc with me as the on-camera host. Then weeks in the editing room after that. The shooting was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I was writing my own lines one minute, memorizing them the next, then doing them on-camera right after that. The whole thing cost me a fortune, but it was worth it just to be active and not passive. Just as I had feared, we had only three mainstream reviews: USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, and the Washington Post. The video made up for all of that. We cut it in three lengths — 30 seconds, 3 minutes, and 10 minutes. The 30-second we used as a commercial on the Military Channel. The others we plastered on the Web. One result is I've been slated to do a full-hour History Channel show, as the host, on Rommel later this year. And sales have been excellent. Without these videos, the book would have had no way to announce its presence. It would have sunk without a trace.
GR: Randy, a Goodreads member and Marine comments, "Pressfield uses the battle of Thermopylae...as a backdrop for studying the psychological makeup of what a soldier should be. This is a great book for anyone who is thinking of, or soon will be joining, military service. Those who are confused as to why a friend or loved one wants to join the military can very likely gain their answers from this book." Gates of Fire is required reading at several military schools around the country. Why do you think this is the case? What is it about your book that appeals to the military-inclined mind? Who else could learn from your books?
SP: Gates of Fire has a theme, and the theme is courage. It's also very much about the camaraderie of fighting men and of the warrior ethos. Believe me, this is still alive and well, despite all P.C. efforts to exile it into the past. Today's Marines and soldiers, however, like the rest of us, are woefully undereducated. No one has studied the past, so we all feel as if we're the first people on the planet to be confronting the issues we're confronting. That's where a book like Gates fills a gap. Marines and Army guys read it and realize that the same stuff they're going through has been gone through by a lot of other warriors before them, and that those warriors and the societies they lived in had highly evolved codes of honor and conduct. It gives our young soldiers and Marines a longer historical perspective and inspires them that they're not alone and they're not the first; in fact, they're part of a long and honorable tradition of the profession of arms. It helps!
GR: Did you read anything that influenced you during your own service as a Marine?
SP: No. I just watched.
GR: What comes first? The idea for a story or a historical event that you begin to research? How do you choose your subject matter?
SP: The writing of a book, for me, takes two to two and a half years. If you're going to do anything for that long, you have to love it. I search and search till I find an idea that grabs me. Usually I don't know why; it takes me halfway through the book before I finally figure it out. I fell in love with the Spartans and wanted to tell their story, to show they were human and not just militaristic drones. For Virtues of War, the first two sentences came to me. They hooked me. ("I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.") I didn't even know the book would be about Alexander; I just loved the ring of those sentences. For Bagger Vance, it was the Bhagavad Gita, which I had always loved. One day it hit me: Let's rip it off and make it a golf story. I knew I was crazy, but I had to do it.
GR: The Virtues of War is told from Alexander the Great's perspective. In contrast, Killing Rommel is told through the eyes of an ordinary man, a young British lieutenant. Do you find more freedom as a writer when you write a story from the perspective of an average fellow? How do you pick a character to narrate your novels?
SP: It can be very daunting, for the reader as well as the writer, to approach a larger-than-life character like a Lincoln or a Caesar. How do you do it? One way is to tell the story through an intermediate character, a more human-sized person that can "let us in" to the tale, make it accessible. There was a movie a couple of years ago about JFK; the filmmakers told it through the eyes of Lawrence O'Donnell (I think I'm getting that right), who was on the fringes of Camelot but could be a fly on the wall. I was daunted as hell to try to tell Alexander the Great's story from his point of view, in his own words. But you know what: You can write a character who's smarter than you are. It works. That's one of the amazing things about fiction and the power of the imagination. In that case, I just decided to leap off the cliff. Once I was in midair, I was fine.
GR: Historical fiction is a particularly difficult genre to master. The writer cannot let his imagination run unchecked, but must adhere to facts. How much creative license do you allow yourself? What was your favorite historical event to reenact?
SP: I use Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as a model. Shakespeare was not writing a biography, he was writing a play. A play has a theme. It's about something. Each character must represent an aspect of the theme. Sometimes you have to bend history, though it's a bad idea, I think, to bend it till it breaks. In my case, as an example, writing about Alexander, I wanted Alexander to represent one point of view and to have two characters who would be like the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. I picked two of his generals and dear friends, Hephaestion and Craterus. I bent their characters to make them embrace points of view that I needed for the story. Was the real Craterus as hard-core as I made him? I don't know. Was Hephaestion as honorable? I don't know. I just followed my instincts and tried not to bend history too much.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
SP: I fiddle around for a long time, all morning usually, before I finally overcome Resistance and get down to work. I try to be as stupid as possible. I just let it rip and try not to censor anything. My goal is just to get something down, good or bad, and K.B.O., Keep Buggering On. I'm very superstitious. I collect pennies. I have a little cannon on my desk that I point at me, to fire inspiration into me. That's only the beginning. They say there's no such thing as writing, only rewriting. I'd divide the activity into two. Yes, there's writing. You have to be fearless and keep grinding, day after day, month after month. Then there's rewriting. That's almost as hard but not as scary. I try to stay as dumb as possible. Don't think about it, do it.
GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?
SP: I'm reading Legion of the Damned that David Mamet sent to me. (Is it OK to drop his name?) I'm also reading about five books for research on the project I'm working on — The Looming Tower (excellent), Thomas Ricks' Fiasco (likewise), What Was Asked of Us (superb). My favorites novels are Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and Laurens van der Post's The Seed and the Sower. I love all ancient Greek stuff, but particularly Plutarch, Plato's Dialogues, and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Did I forget Homer? The Bible ain't bad either!