Stephen England: It’s my unique pleasure to sit down today and interview a man who is not only a brilliantly talented author, but someone I consider a personal friend. Welcome aboard, Robert—it’s great to have you with us here on Stephenwrites.
Robert Bidinotto: Thanks so much for this opportunity to chat with you and your readers, my friend.
SE: You and I first met in 2010, at a political rally where we were both speaking. It wasn’t until the following year that we re-connected—to find that we had both become independent authors in the meantime, with the launches of Pandora’s Grave and HUNTER coming only weeks apart. What was the path to publishing like for you?
RB: It’s been a wild ride, Stephen, filled with unlikely surprises and unexpected pleasures. I confess that I didn’t anticipate my late-life career change from writing and editing nonfiction, to writing thriller novels. Since I was young, I harbored fantasies of trying my hand at fiction, but two things always stopped me.
First, I just didn’t have the confidence. For a nonfiction author of political-social commentary and reviews, the prospect of crafting plots, dialogue, and characterization was way outside my comfort zone. Fiction writing requires completely different skill sets, and I honestly didn’t think I possessed them.
Second, I was deterred by what I knew about traditional publishing. I knew that it would take a long time—if ever—to get an agent and a publisher. I’d also been burned during a previous nonfiction book negotiation, where I wasted a year jumping through hoops and doing everything required of me—only to have the plug pulled by the publisher at the end, and then being dumped by my agent. And I knew about publishers’ onerous contract terms, which virtually guaranteed that even if I did get published, I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to make a living at it.
SE: Indeed, such prospects would serve as a strong deterrent. What served to move you past all of that?
RB: My fear was offset when I lost my magazine editor job. And my hesitation over the state of publishing was overcome when I learned about exciting new self-publishing options, and the huge successes of some “indie” authors. So, in early 2010, with nothing to lose, I took the plunge and started writing HUNTER in earnest.
I self-published it in the summer of 2011. After five months of decent sales, Amazon listed it in a post-Thanksgiving promotion, named it an “editors’ pick,” and gave it spotlight treatment. It immediately soared up the Kindle bestseller list to #4, becoming the #1 title in “Mysteries & Thrillers” and also a Wall Street Journal “Top 10 Fiction Ebook.”
SE: I remember that Sunday very well—watching HUNTER’s rankings was like watching the launch of the moon rocket.
RB: As I said, it was a wild ride. And so began my improbable new career, past age sixty, as a thriller author. I couldn’t be happier with how things turned out, and with my decision to self-publish rather than seek a traditional publisher.
SE: Moving on from the details of publishing, Robert. . .you earned your reputation nationally as an investigative crime writer for Reader’s Digest, rising to particular prominence with your 1988 article “Getting Away with Murder” and its impact on that year’s political campaign. Tell us how this background has influenced your approach to thriller fiction and the creation of Dylan Hunter.
RB: From years of “true crime” investigations for Reader’s Digest, plus two nonfiction books I’d written about crime, I knew that liberal ideas had fostered outrageous leniency within our criminal justice system. The criminals and victims depicted in HUNTER are actually fictional adaptations from many “true crime” cases I researched during that period. So are my depictions of prison “rehabilitation” programs and various “alternatives to incarceration.” This background dovetailed with my desire to write a credible tale about a man propelled, by moral outrage, to become a unique kind of urban vigilante.
SE: And it’s a realism that comes through quite clearly in HUNTER. Like Shadow Warriors protagonist Harry Nichols, Dylan Hunter comes from the sharp end of the CIA, the National Clandestine Service. What influenced you in your choice of background for Hunter?
RB: I knew that I wanted my vigilante hero to be able to operate boldly, commit spectacular acts, yet avoid detection or capture. But to do that in our modern surveillance state, a believable vigilante character would have to possess “a very particular set of skills . . . acquired over a very long career”—to quote Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA character from the movie Taken.
SE: Ha, Neeson was phenomenal in that movie—always one of my favorite action films. And you’re right, a character like Hunter needs that “particular set of skills.”
RB: Skills that imply specialized training, either in police work, or in military special operations, or in one of the more lethal branches of the intelligence community. Even though many other thriller writers—yourself included—have drawn their heroes from those professions, I had little choice but to follow that same path, if I wanted Dylan’s skills and resources to seem credible. A CIA background seemed to be the most plausible option, given all the things I wanted him to be able to do in the future.
SE: Your characterization of him as a NOC (non-official cover) CIA officer works well in painting the portrait of someone accustomed to working on his own, to an extent outside the bureaucracy. What would you like to tell us about his character?
RB: When I was a little kid growing up during the 1950s, I was captivated by television heroes like The Lone Ranger and Zorro. When I started to read comic books, my favorite was Batman. You will notice that all those guys are variations on the “lone-wolf vigilante,” fighting for justice single-handedly against powerful forces. That’s a timeless fictional archetype that goes back to tales of medieval knights errant and samurai warriors.
SE: Indeed it is—classic themes that are themselves powerful storytelling narratives. As a matter of fact, I grew up on the Lone Ranger as well. . .re-runs, just to be clear. You and I are hardly contemporaries! 😉
RB: You keep needling me about my advanced age, you young whippersnapper! Anyway, I wanted Dylan Hunter to be in that tradition, too. But I didn’t want just another “Death Wish” retread, the kind you see in hundreds of B-movies. Which is where other aspects of my own background come in.
Like you, I’ve been interested in politics and philosophy since I was a kid, and the pursuit of justice has always been central to those interests. In fact, it was the underlying motive during my whole nonfiction career. So when I decided to write fiction, I wanted my novels to address serious issues related to justice, too. That’s why I made Dylan more educated, intellectually sophisticated, and philosophically motivated than most vigilante heroes. I also made him a journalist. That allowed me to draw upon my years writing for magazines and newspapers, and also give Dylan professional reasons to poke his nose into various kinds of wrong-doing.
The resulting character, I think, is a unique hybrid in thriller fiction. One reviewer of HUNTER—who is himself a professional philosopher—described Dylan Hunter as a kind of a cross between Jason Bourne and Batman. Which is not a bad comparison. But in addition to Jason Bourne and Bruce Wayne, I think you can also find in him elements of Robert B. Parker’s private detective hero Spenser—especially in their respective codes of honor and devoted romantic relationships. In Dylan’s flamboyant symbolism there is a bit of Zorro and of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, too. I suspect that in Dylan’s newspaper job and his relationship with his harried editor, Bill Bronowski, I subconsciously borrowed from Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, and his relationship with Daily Planet editor Perry White. But most distinctively, Dylan Hunter is an intellectual avenger—a philosophical vigilante. So I think there’s some of Ayn Rand’s avenging vigilante pirate Ragnar Danneskjold in him, as well.
Dylan Hunter is the mongrel offspring of all of those iconic vigilantes who have been knocking about in my subconscious for decades. It’s a noble pedigree, don’t you think?
SE: Fascinating that you mention that. . .I picked up on the newspaperman angle early on—a classic “superhero” alter ego. And like some would argue about both our characters, a throwback to an earlier day. In HUNTER, you took on the failings and abuses of the American criminal justice system. Earlier this year, you moved on to an explosive exposé of the “green” environmental movement with the release of BAD DEEDS, the second novel of your series—a stellar read, I might add. What motivates you to explore such complex, some might even say unorthodox subjects through the medium of a thriller novel?
RB: I think authors should write what they feel passionate about. In my case, because I’ve been interested in ideas since I was a kid, I like to read and write thought-provoking fiction. I sometimes describe my stories as “thrillers for thinkers.” The opposing forces in them aren’t just fighting superficially over money or power or sex, but over clashing visions of what is right and wrong. So even their motives for pursuing money, or power, or sex are rationalized by some ideology, philosophy, or religion. I believe that when you explore those kinds of complexities, it brings an unusual depth to your characterizations and richness to your stories—and it also elevates the stakes and the suspense. SE: I would agree that it does, and it’s a critical thing many don’t understand about suspense fiction. It isn’t enough to have action—it must have meaning.
RB: Exactly. In any case, Stephen, I do not believe that there’s any necessary clash between producing entertaining fiction and thought-provoking fiction. Look at the greatest writers—Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hugo, Shakespeare, Rostand, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Rand, Orwell, and many more. They wrote highly entertaining popular fiction that was also intellectually stimulating. In fact, that’s what makes their work so memorable and enduring.
SE: One of the hallmarks of the Dylan Hunter books that I’ve noticed in the reading of them is the way in which complex moral and social issues are addressed throughout the narrative—without coming off as “preachy” or heavy-handed. Describe for us your approach, and the difficulties of maintaining that balance.
RB: Yes, it is a challenge to do that without putting your characters up on soap boxes, delivering speeches that masquerade as dialogue. Too many opinionated writers fail to entertain because they engage in extraneous pontificating, rather than make their ideas integral to the stories themselves.
And that’s the key. The way to avoid awkward preachiness is to weave a provocative premise into the very fabric of your story. You want to make it the central point of contention that motivates the characters, forces them into conflict, and sets up the major events of the plot.
In HUNTER, my theme is how the liberal view of justice has led to a legal system that “enables” and empowers criminals to commit more crimes. So I needed to develop characters that would be in conflict over that issue. On one side I put crime victims and cops, on the other side criminals and their intellectual excuse-makers. Championing the former was my hero, journalist Dylan Hunter; championing the latter was a wealthy liberal philanthropist. But adding to the personal complications for Dylan was the fact that—unknown to him—the woman he loves is emotionally torn between himself and his antagonist, in a surprising way. And piling on, I added the looming release from prison of a vicious killer plotting to go after both Dylan and his lover.
In BAD DEEDS, my theme is even more controversial: that environmentalism can serve as a philosophical rationalization for cruel injustices, ranging from plundering people to nihilistic acts of destruction. To illustrate that, I created a range of characters representing the entire spectrum of the environmentalist movement: politicians, activists, lawyers, EPA regulators, investors in “green energy” companies, and violent “ecoterrorists.” I selected a hot current issue—the controversy over natural gas and oil “fracking.” And then I choreographed the plot so that the entire environmentalist community targets a lone entrepreneur running a small drilling company, and also nearby property owners. Once again, Dylan finds himself caught up in this conflict, compelled to defend those who have been targeted with political intimidation and violence.
Now, both books contain everything a thriller fan would want: plenty of violent action, white-knuckle suspense, and hot romance. I think their serious themes raise the stakes and add unusual depth to the stories, without in the least blunting their entertainment value.
SE: As a long-time reader of the series, I can testify to that—everything a thriller fan would want, in spades. They truly are amazing books. Speaking of “hot romance”. . .another aspect differentiating your books from many in the genre is the strong romantic angle, between Dylan Hunter and CIA officer Annie Woods. Elaborate, if you will, on your reasons for making their relationship so central to the stories and how it has influenced the arc of the series.
RB: You’re right, Stephen. A lot of thriller writers tend to push romance to the sidelines. But that’s just not me. Still, I didn’t want the love affair to be a gratuitous element, tossed in just to spice things up. I had to figure out how to make Annie Woods central to the storylines.
In HUNTER, I needed to personalize the issue of crime and its “enablers,” for Dylan as well as for readers. And I wanted to ramp up his emotional conflict over taking vigilante actions. So I asked myself: What could possibly cause a tough guy like Dylan to experience emotional turmoil or hesitation about going after bad guys? My answer was: His acts would have to put him into conflict with somebody he loves. So I positioned Annie Woods to be caught in the middle, between Dylan and his main antagonist. Taking action against that guy would pit Dylan against Annie, too.
Annie’s character also serves another, more subtle purpose in that novel. She speaks for a lot of readers who also find themselves “in the middle,” conflicted over the controversial issues the book raises. I felt that as she ponders and resolves these issues, a lot of readers would identify and come along with her as her views evolve.
SE: Agreed. And in a novel that approaches things from what some will see as a controversial viewpoint, you need that type of character—and need them to feel organic, which you certainly accomplished.
RB: Thanks. I’m glad it worked for you. In BAD DEEDS, Annie represents something different. Dylan obviously doesn’t want to cause the woman he adores any further pain. But now he finds that his propensity for vigilante violence is doing exactly that—so much so that it threatens their relationship. This raises the stakes and the suspense for the entire arc of the series. How can he continue his violent ways without losing the woman he loves? He must make choices that will affect his life and happiness, and also impact future novels.
So you see, if it weren’t for Annie’s presence, Dylan’s life as a secret vigilante would be far less complicated. His conflicts would be entirely external: Dylan versus the bad guys. The result would be just another ho-hum vigilante series, with lots of action, shooting, and killing. But drama is based on conflict, and the best dramas include not just external conflicts between antagonists, but also internal conflicts within their own hearts and minds. You get a much deeper, richer story that way.
Finally, I am weary of thrillers where all the women are either (a) casual sexual flings for the hero, or (b) doomed to be killed off by the villains after a few chapters, thus propelling the hero into a rampage of revenge. Those are tired clichés. I want to depict a healthy, passionate, enduring, and monogamous romantic relationship—much as Robert B. Parker did in his Spenser series.
To sum up, then, Dylan’s love life—besides being sizzling and sexy for readers—is also an ongoing complication. I love that kind of romantic tension, and I think readers, especially female readers, do too.
SE: Favorite authors and influences . . . every author has them. Tell us a few of yours.
RB: Among thriller and suspense authors, at the top of my list stand Stephen Hunter, Lee Child, Brad Thor, Jack Higgins, Daniel Silva, Robert Crais, and these late greats: Vince Flynn, Robert B. Parker, Alistair MacLean, and Mickey Spillane. They’ve all influenced me in how I write thrillers.
Because my novels have serious themes, I also have to cite classic authors of fiction that is based on ideas. I’ve already mentioned Ibsen, Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, and Rostand. For single works, I would point to Robert Bolt’s magnificent play and film, A Man for All Seasons.
But at the top of that list I’d put Ayn Rand.
SE: I knew we’d be getting to her. Certainly one of the writers most influential on your style, and indeed, life.
RB: Rand is grossly, unfairly underrated by the culturati. Nobody, but nobody, better integrated complex themes into fiction, so that every element in a given story manifested one central idea. She was also a consummate and clever stylist. I think The Fountainhead, in particular, is one of the most brilliantly integrated and executed novels of ideas ever penned. I’ve learned more about fiction writing from Rand than anyone else.
SE: Both HUNTER and BAD DEEDS have raked in fantastic reviews on Amazon and you’ve started work on Book #3. Where do you see this series heading down the road, and what can fans expect from Dylan Hunter and Annie Woods in the future?
RB: I don’t like to give away “spoilers,” Stephen, so I don’t want to say too much. But some things should be clear to readers of the first two tales, especially given the “teaser” at the end of BAD DEEDS.
Dylan is now on the radar of some very dangerous people, including some in government. The big question is: How can he continue his vigilante ways without being detected and arrested, or targeted for assassination? Will he have to disappear, changing his identity once again? Other questions include: Can he continue his relationship with Annie? What about his former CIA boss, Grant Garrett, who has vowed never to assist Dylan again? Will Wonk, his research assistant, ever discover what his boss is really up to? Lots of great questions to answer.
I have many ideas for future Dylan Hunter tales. Now I just have to speed up my output, so I can get around to writing them all!
SE: Yes, please do. Hustle, hustle. So in closing, is there anything further you’d like to share with the fans of the Shadow Warriors series?
RB: I hope your own avid readers check out HUNTER and BAD DEEDS. If they like Harry Nichols, I think they’ll enjoy Dylan Hunter, too. And if your fans want to learn more about me or the world of Dylan Hunter, I invite them to visit my blog, “The Vigilante Author” (www.bidinotto.com). I post a lot about thrillers there, including many fascinating interviews with fellow authors—including you, Stephen.
Speaking of which, I want to thank you, not only for sharing this space, but also for serving as a personal inspiration to me. It’s a great kick to witness the launch of your writing career, my friend, because your quality is already so good that I know you’ll one day be among the most famous and bestselling authors in the thriller genre. I just can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next.
SE: And that goes double. So, folks, be sure to check out Robert’s books, both linked in the cover art below. The first novel of the Dylan Hunter series, HUNTER, is now on sale for only 99 cents, an absolute steal. Get both now for less than six dollars!