"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s with William Diehl An Interview with Kevin Courrier


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 opposites. 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 Seven Ways to Die.


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 honorable people versus dishonorable people. And I've put at the heart of it the Oriental philosophy of honor. 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?

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?

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

-- 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.

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