Older and Wiser: a novelist loves writing and shooting


Stephen Hunter won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2003. (FRAZER HARRISON/GETTY IMAGES)
March 18, 2013

Nearly every day, 66-year-old novelist Stephen Hunter does two things: He writes and he shoots. He writes about guns and then shoots them at a firing range near his Baltimore house. His knowledge of guns is encyclopedic and the details show up in his novels. Guns often give him a germ of an idea for a story.

Hunter’s newest novel, “The Third Bullet,” about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is the eighth in a series about a former Marine sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, who has reached the age of 66.

As a younger man, Hunter wrote and edited for the Baltimore Sun; in 1997, he became the film critic for The Washington Post. In 2003 he won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Hunter has written 19 novels and three nonfiction books. He is working on his 20th novel, about a female sniper in Russia during World War II.

He recently talked with The Post at a coffee shop near his home. This is an edited excerpt.

Laura Hambleton

Let’s talk about aging.

I understand that I get tireder now, but I don’t ascribe that to aging. I understand that my fine-motor coordination is all shot to hell, but I don’t ascribe that to aging. I understand that my memory is a parody of what it once was, but I don’t ascribe that to aging. I just sort of cultivate the fantasy that these things are unrelated. I am aware that that is an illusion, but for me it is a helpful illusion.

The other day, I was at a party talking to a few people, and I was up against the food table. Someone bent over to try to get something that I was in the way of and he bumped me. He said, “Excuse me, excuse me.” He was 14. I said, ‘That’s all right. I’m old. You can push me around.” We both laughed.

I enjoy doing that, but I don’t walk around feeling old.

Is being old bad?

In and of itself, no. Being ineffective is bad, being of a complaining mood is bad, being in chronic pain is bad, being slow to react is bad, not getting it is bad. On the other hand, I am attracted to ideas of wisdom. I am attracted to the image of the old dog. I am attracted to the image of the professional with a sensibility to certain experiences that are unique. I know what I can do. I know what I can’t do.

I feel old when I have to get up to go to the bathroom for the fourth time and it’s 5 in the morning. On the other hand, getting back to bed after that event is enormously satisfying.

What is easier in old age?

I don’t want to say I have mastered the craft [of writing books], but I feel a lot more confident. I am capable of doing things and seeing things and making things happen in ways that I was not even five years ago. I feel like I am smarter than I was 10 years ago. I feel like I’m a lot smarter than I was 20 years ago, and I feel like I’m a lot smarter than I was 30 years ago.

What do you mean by “smarter”?

I mean book-smart. I mean understanding the systems of governance and culture. I mean sort of understanding those things that are worth investing anger or emotion in and those things that aren’t. I mean social smarts, the ability to interact with different kinds of people and to be comfortable in different, challenging professional situations. I mean verbal quickness.

Tell me about your day writing.

I am not one of these guys who gets up at the crack of dawn and works for five hours, then has breakfast, answers the mail and works for another five hours. That is entirely too Viking-like for me.

I am a night person. I get up at the crack of noon. I spend a couple hours drinking coffee and just browsing on the Internet. It is terrible and pointless, but I do it anyways.

I have two things I do most days. I write and shoot. It depends on what my mood is which I will do first. [With writing,] I’ll work for two hours, maybe three, maybe one hour. I don’t kill myself. One of the things I’ve learned — I give speeches, and I use this in every speech I’ve ever given — is that writing a book is baseball. It’s not football. And what I mean by that is that it is a long, grinding season. You’re going to have very bad games. You’re going to have failures. You’re going to make errors. You’re going to do stupid things. You just have to trust over the long haul you will overcome all of those mistakes.

It takes more energy to get into the world of the book than it does to write the book. The more frequently you visit the book, the easier it is to get into it. That means you have to work every day. You have to make that transit from this world to that world as energy-free, as habitual, as easy as possible. Every time you skip a day, it is twice as hard the next time. If you skip two days, it’s not two times, it’s four times; it’s exponential. The way books die is that you reach a point where the energy to get back into the book overwhelms you

I’ve had books die on me [like that]. It is really painful.

Your protagonist, Bob Lee Swagger, is aging. He is 66. How do you write about a guy getting old?

I know a lot of these professional writers whose heroes are in an eternal 34-to-38 age bracket. I can’t begin to remember how a 34-year-old mind works or body works. I know how a 66-year-old body works. I don’t recall making a coherent decision that he would age with me. He is obviously a hopelessly idealized version. I couldn’t begin to do one-thousandth of what he does, but many of his thought patterns, some of his family history and a lot of the physicality of aging is taken directly from my life, even if he is much stronger and braver and has far more stamina than I do.

How about your hip?

I was never shot in the hip [as Swagger was]. My hip is profoundly uninteresting. One of the duller hips in Western civilization. Not even my wife is interested. I did have some pre-arthritic symptoms a few years ago where one of the qualities of my life was a lot of pain and a lot of stiffness. I may have inflated that grotesquely in his constant problems with his hip.

He is getting so old. I keep hearing, “How can this guy do this stuff?” I try to be wise about it. He no longer gets in fistfights. He no longer runs. He tries to use his intelligence as opposed to physical strength. [But] old men can shoot. Old men can be superb shots. I always have to get him in gunfights because they’re about skill, courage and cunning, and not about strength.

Have your books always begun with a gun?

Many of my books do. I will have an image of a gun, and it will create a world and a story. For example, the very first book I wrote was called “The Master Sniper.” It was a World War II book. It did not exist until the moment I saw a picture of a German assault rifle with an infrared-mechanism night vision. I was sitting in 1978, I was sitting in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. I was the book review editor. This was in the Rand McNally encyclopedia of World War II. I saw that gun. I knew the gun, but I didn’t know the Germans had infrared until that second. And the second I saw that, I knew I had a book.

Writers have their subjects. Faulkner was obsessed with grappa. Hemingway was obsessed with the code as it plays out in extreme situations. Updike with the peccadilloes and nuances of bourgeois. Believe me, I’m not comparing myself to any of these. What I’m just saying is, you get a theme. It seems almost genetic.

From the very first second I saw a firearm, I found it incredibly interesting. To me, the gun was . . . let’s call it a cluster of possibilities, history. It was drama, behavior. It was engineering. It was manufacturing. It was ergonomics. It was action.

So the shooting range is your muse?

I wouldn’t say the shooting periods are particularly creative. I don’t get ideas while I am shooting. This might — and it will be seen as hideous by millions of people — be a form of mind relaxation. What I do love about it is the totality of the engagement. Whatever issues I am facing are temporarily disconnected. I cease to be Steve Hunter. I cease to be a movie critic. I cease to be a novelist. I cease to be father. I cease to be an uncertain supervisor of a shaky financial situation. I am just a pair of eyes, hands, musculature of wrists and arms, and I find that purifying.

The act of shooting is very formal. In other words, every time I do it, I do it according to physical principles. Like any athletic thing, from shooting baskets to throwing touchdowns, it is fundamentally athletic. It is a function of hand, eye and muscle.

Given the amount of shooting that I’ve done, I should be a lot better than I am. I wish I were a better shot.

Have you changed your stance on guns?

Though I am not a liberal anymore, I was for many, many years. The guns have pulled me far to the right. I will say [that] on The Washington Post, everybody was very decent to me. They understood who I was and what my beliefs were. No one ever got in my face. I’ll always be grateful to them. In that newsroom, tolerance was real.

Do you still care about movies, or has that changed as you’ve aged?

I don’t care about modern movies. I occasionally will see a modern movie. Now and then I will go as a guilty pleasure to see some movie filled with ridiculous gunfights. One of the pleasures of my life is freedom from the America movie. In my opinion — and this is typical old-guy rant – the movies are just no longer speaking to me. One of the reasons I left [The Post] was that I could see myself becoming a parody: “In my time, we did it much better. It ain’t no good no more, no siree. I don’t know where they find these young fellas with all that hair. In my time, men had real faces.” It was time to go.

That’s interesting.

Here is what I am surprised you haven’t asked me, but I am going to answer it anyways because I thought about it.

If you asked me for the wisdom, here is the one thing I would say for people approaching and getting ready for retirement. Three words: Avoid the bitter.

Bitter will kill you. The artists of the 20th century I most respect would be Ernest Hemingway, John Ford and John Wayne. In many ways, the same men. Alpha males. Extremely, mythically successful with enormous sexual opportunities, enormous financial resources, able to indulge their every impulse, and yet all three of them ended up isolated, bitter and angry. That seems so tragic me.

Nobody succeeds to the degree they think they should. You have to make peace with the fact that you didn’t get exactly what you wanted and what you felt you were entitled to.

How do you do that?

It helps to have a passion. For me, it happens to be guns and the firearm world and all of that. I always have a place to go, a place where I feel at home. If it is reading or shooting or thinking, there’s always place where I can go which I find nurturing and stimulating. It helps enormously at the center of your life.

The second thing: I am a writer. That to me is a noble calling I fulfill very proudly.

Do you ever see a day when you can’t write?

[Long pause.] Yeah. I’ve imagined a life without it. I see this idealized life on a small ranch out West where I’m able to shoot and work on my guns every day. I have my own range and I have my own large shop. I see that as how I might finish my life. Unfortunately, I don’t see my wife in that, because she is sophisticated and cosmopolitan. She and Montana does not compute. Nope. Does not compute.

The reality is, I will stay where I am and enjoy what I’ve got.

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