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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

STEPHEN MERTZ—FIGHTING CODY’S WAR


 
  STEPHEN MERTZ
FIGHTING CODY’S WAR
Full disclosure up front. Stephen Mojo Mertz and I have been friends since our early days of mystery fanzines. We both broke into professional fiction writing in the mid-eighties writing men’s adventure series paperbacks published under pseudonyms. Since those days, we’ve continued our friendship through years of publishing successes under our own names, mystery conventions, and marathon used bookstore crawls. We’ve also been through the proverbial hell and high water of being poorly treated as mid-list writers by the major New York legacy publishers who were once the gatekeepers of bestsellerdom. We’ve also been part of the e-book revolution breaking free from those legacy publishers and working with the new breed of smaller independent publishers.

If Steve and I had grown up together, we would have been the terrors of the neighborhood. There would have been countless games of cowboys and outlaws, cops and crooks, and spy vs. spy. We would have saved the world repeatedly by infiltrating supervillains' hidden lairs and thwarting their nefarious plans. And like our heroes, we would have gotten all the hot babes, not that we would have known what to do with them. Still, the likes of Emma Peel, Honey West, Cinnamon Carter, Agent 99, April Dancer, and Charlie’s Angles became our defining definition of juvenile desires.

While we didn't grow up together, the imaginary playgrounds we built, filled with heroes, villains, and hot babes were essentially the same. We watched the same shows and hung out with the same imaginary friends. Calvin and Hobbs had nothing on us.

Because we both read books, lots and lots of books, most beyond our age level, our imaginations thrived and blossomed. The likes of Mike Hammer, Philip Marlowe, and Conan the Barbarian gave us a whole new understanding of manhood, while Modesty Blaze and Mike Hammer's Velda secretly stoked our teen carnal desires.

We would have been best pals back then. And once our paths crossed, we did become, and remain, best pals today. We recognized we are brothers from different mothers, who unlike most of our peers, never left our imaginary childhood friends behind. They have stayed with us, leading us both to becoming writers—quick-draw wordslingers firing bullets on the page instead of at high noon on Main Street.

I rode the wild west as Pike Bishop in a series about a character named Diamondback—a wanted man who acted as a judge or go-between to settle disputes among outlaw factions. Steve took a different route, writing Executioner novels under the mentorship of Don Pendleton—the man who singlehandedly began the literary revolution known as the action adventure genre.

Stephen Mertz would go on to create one of the most significant men’s action adventure series in the genre. MIA Hunter, featuring a three-man team of modern day warriors that spawned imitators but none as crackerjack as the adventures Mertz created into which to drop his characters Mark Stone, Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin. MIA Hunter has become iconic as it brilliantly tied into our cultural guilt regarding captured service men left behind after the Vietnam War.

The men’s adventure genre wound down in the ‘90s, but Stephen Mertz was only getting started. In the next two decades, Mertz honed his craft writing both cutting edge thrillers and more in depth and personal stories about the music scene of which Steve was a part. Today, having become a master of his craft, his name on a book cover guarantees a riveting read ahead for the reader.

And now it is time to bring things full circle. The action adventure genre has quietly begun a new revolution. New series such as Reaper and Stiletto are garnering wide response from new readers hungry for fast-paced action. While it takes Jack Reacher or Mitch Rapp 400 pages or more to wipe out the bad guys today, the likes of such original men’s adventure heroes as The Executioner or The MIA Hunter did it in two hundred pages. They were lean, mean, and lethal as hell—and now those guys are back.

With the release of the first entry in the new Cody’s War series, Stephen Mertz has returned to his roots, and he’s brought a whole new level of deadly experience with him. Fortunately, I was able to distract him from his blazing keyboard long enough for a quick interrogation:
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During the early days of your writing career, you found yourself under the mentorship of the man who set the standard for men’s action adventure—the legendary Don Pendleton. How did this evolve and what were the most important lessons you took from the experience?

My friendship with Don began when a wannabe writer guy who’d read a half-dozen Executioner novels wrote a fan letter out of the blue to a best-selling author. Don wrote back two months later, a long and friendly response. A sort of pen-pal friendship grew between us over the years that followed, a few letters per year. This was before cell phones and emails, remember. Don offered to read one of my unsold manuscripts. Hell, they were ALL unsold at that time! He sent me a five-page single-spaced critique of that manuscript! The book eventually sold, incidentally, with Don’s suggestions incorporated into it. I know now that most professional writers are broached often by those wanting a critique of something they’ve written. I didn’t ask; Don freely offered. That’s a mark of the kind of guy he was, generous beyond belief in every way.

We met a few years later during one of my open-end summer road trips. An afternoon visit turned into a layover at Pendle Hill, Don’s spread in Brown County, Indiana. Don treated me to a whirlwind—I should say, death-defying—tour of the area in his new fire engine red ragtop Cad (top down, of course). Through rustic rural towns with names like Gnaw Bone, we pretty much yakked writing non-stop. 

I’d been writing like crazy in those days all through high school, the Army and working the road as a musician. It’s a hard business to break into and I hadn’t sold a word. That summer I was 29. Don was 49. As I was also to learn later, turning out four books per year like he was at the time, about the same hero doing more or less the same things, it can drain a guy creatively. For a while after that I served at Don’s request as his assistant on the periphery of some of the Bolan titles while he was still with Pinnacle.

When the franchise was sold to the Harlequin imprint, Gold Eagle, it was only natural that I’d be one of the writers Don recommended for their program. I wrote a dozen books in the GE Mack Bolan series. After Don moved to Arizona our friendship only deepened through the years until his passing. I can honestly say that after my own father, Don Pendleton was the most influential man in my life both as a writer and as a man.

Besides Don, are there other writers who have inspired you?

Ouch, that’s always a tough one. The honest truth is that as a new writer and even today, every really good novel leaves its mark. For the modern action adventure genre that Cody’s War falls into, well, Clive Cussler in his prime, that’s as good as it gets. Cussler is the gold standard. As far as writers I read coming up who are now out of print and mostly forgotten, I’ve always wanted to write as well as Edward S. Aarons. His Assignment series is a personal favorite. But let’s not forget the movies! Cinema has always been a strong influence on my prose going back to action directors like Walter Hill and Jon Woo. Love or hate ol’ Tom Cruise, you’ve got to admit the last couple of his Mission Impossible flicks are totally kickass, delivering at every level of heroic fiction. That’s the vibe of Cody’s War.

You have long lobbied for a change of emphasis from the label of the men’s action adventure genre to simply the action adventure genre. Why do you feel this is important?

Why make a genre gender specific? The gender of my readers does not concern me. My novels are driven by interesting, dynamic men and women. What I have to offer is for everyone, not just half the species. It’s a mistake to limit a genre’s appeal by being so specific in its labeling.

Do you approach a series novel different to a standalone thriller?

The physical process never changes. Three to five hours a day. Four or five days per week. I’m a creature of habit so the process is well in place no matter what I’m writing. But yeah, it’s different in another way. The challenge of the standalone is that you’re only going to get this one chance to tell these characters’ story so you’d better get it right. Make sure you get everything in while not letting the book become overly long and ponderous. A series provides more room to swing. The characters have more than one book for their story to breathe and unfold. With a series I’m reuniting each book with characters whose company I enjoy and ideally that feeling is shared with the reader.

What draws you to a good story—what do you look for first, character, plot, theme?

All three! The perfect combination is a strong plot with strong characters who have something to say. That’s a hard combination to beat. Works every time. But too much of so-called pulp fiction is populated by static characters that eventually grow stale because they never change. You asked earlier about lessons learned from Don Pendleton. Don’s original Executioner novels relate not merely a series of encounters but a clear progression in character development that connects and transcends the individual episodes. Bolan is not the same guy at the end of Book #38 as he was when going into Book #1. He kept growing and changing as a real person would throughout a series of encounters. That was a lesson learned. A general rule of writing is that memorable fiction stems from great characters. The essence of pulp fiction is rapid plot development. The name of my game is bringing those two elements together the way Don did.

With the resurgence of lean and mean action adventure series reaching a new generation of readers, what is it about the genre you believe speaks to them?

Thrillers have over the years become too damn long. It started decades ago with Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy and is epidemic today. Fat is the only word that comes to mind. Most of these guys are decent writers but even when they start out with an engaging premise . . . too damn long! Sure, every novel should be as long or short as needs to be. But at its best the writing of action adventure is as lean and mean as the characters, without unnecessary padding. When someone tells me they’ve read a good thriller but it could have been cut by 100 pages--and I read that a lot these days in Amazon reviews--well, that’s not a novel I’d care to read. The trend to scale down action adventure back to its basics indicates that I’m not the only reader who feels that way.

When you decided to write the Cody’s War series, what were your goals and aspirations for it?

I’ve had the good fortune to join forces with Mike Bray and his hardworking crew at Wolfpack Publishing. They’ve repackaged and are successfully marketing the MIA Hunter series, and my entire backlist is available online through them in e-book format with sharp new paperback editions as well. Cody’s War is slanted for a concept in e-book publishing that’s not unlike the trend of binge watching TV shows. The first five novels are dropping as a Rapid Release series: a new novel will appear every three weeks. Dragonfire! and each of the subsequent Cody’s War book is a complete storyline unto itself set against an overreaching arc of plot and character is only resolved in the final volume.

What can readers expect now that Cody’s War has begun?

Not to be too coy about it, but I’m not sure . . . that’s part of the adventure! Could be a beginning of a series that will continue for years. I’ve delivered the first five novels to Wolfpack. I like this guy, Cody. He’s dealing with a world of heavy personal shit but that doesn’t stop him from seriously kicking ass around the world. He only takes on suicide missions. By the second book he’s partnering in the field with his CIA control officer, Sara. They make a great team. Sara’s the yin to Cody’s yang. Wait until you see them team up in Afghanistan in Book #4! Oh, yeah. It’s going to be a hot five-book ride. After that, we’ll see . . .


Thanks to Steve for hanging out. I’ll now release him from custody to get back to writing the next chapter in his thrilling exploits...


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