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Zeroed In: Stephen Hunter

Everybody's a Critic. But This Guy has a Pulitzer Because of it. Esteemed Film Critic, Writer, and Bob Lee Swagger Creator Stephen Hunter Pens His 20th Novel and Reflects on Life’s Journey.

Photos by Jed Kirschbaum and Kenda Lenseigne

“I’m not a believer in the romantic image of the novelist,” says Bob Lee Swagger creator and author Stephen Hunter. “The romantics burn out real early in this business. I never thought of myself as having a crusade, or having a great message or agenda, it was just the work that I chose to do that gave me little pleasures.” While downplaying his life’s work, Hunter’s career has certainly marked the fringes of space and time that anybody in his shoes would have a right to romanticize.

As a film critic working for the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, Stephen Hunter received the Pulitzer Prize; only the second film critic to do so after Roger Ebert.  Hard not to see the romance in a tweed-coated scribe, working back when the newspaper was the news, eagerly handing down 800-word critiques of box office smashes and duds — only to receive the top prize anybody in the written world could aspire to. Stephen is far too salt-of-the-earth for that kind of self-aggrandizement. Maybe it’s because while he had a career many would be envious of, he was working on someone else’s life — a man named Bob Lee Swagger. Anyone familiar with Hunter’s novels knows Bob Lee Swagger, and you may know him too. Swagger was portrayed on the big screen by Mark Wahlberg in the movie Shooter, and is currently being portrayed by actor Ryan Philippe in a television show by the same name.

Twenty novels deep as an author with 10 of them dedicated to Swagger, Hunter has created a timeless character — a feat most authors never accomplish. Becoming such a successful novelist is even more full circle for this Chief Film Critic considering his character also transcended the written page to the silver screen. In this aspect, Hunter has certainly lived a double life. “In one I was trying to tell stories; in the other, I was trying to tell what was wrong with somebody else’s story,” quips the engaging author.

Perhaps it’s his background in film and his love for firearms that makes his writing so entertaining. “I wanted my written scenes to come to life to the point that when you read my novels, you can almost forget that you’re holding a book in your hand.”

Hunter’s writing packs that cinematic and tension-filled punch in every novel — a testament to his life’s dedication to film along with his own natural gift for vivid imagery. As far as his shooting prowess, Hunter is far more humorous. “Here’s the difference between my shooting and my writing. As a writer, I focused on two forms, one form was the 300-page gun-centric male-oriented novel, the second was the 800-word movie review. I spent my whole life attempting to master those. Regardless of what I say, the record says I was mildly successful. As a shooter, however, I violated the principal of specialization. I’ll shoot any damn thing: handguns, rifles, IPSC, hunting, and trap. In the shooting world, I am truly a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Had I stuck with one thing I think I would have been a better shooter, but I was too impatient and kept moving on because it was so fun.” Indeed life stays fun for Hunter as his 10th Bob Lee Swagger novel G-Man recently hit the shelves, ensuring Swagger’s — and Hunter’s — legacies will continue to thrive.

The thing itself, an objet d’art of dubious taste and even a bit kitschy, but curiously not yet worn down from obsessive fondling.

The thing itself, an objet d’art of dubious taste and even a bit kitschy, but curiously not yet worn down from obsessive fondling.

RECOIL: You’ve worked in newspapers for 38 years, and you’ve been a published author for 37, do you feel like you lead two lives?
Stephen Hunter: I’d like to say I’m one of nature’s natural noblemen, but the truth is, I’m a lazy dog. The only way I pulled it off was that I beat the writing of the books into the part of my brain where the other information was stored about brushing my teeth, combing my hair, and performing other perfunctory human activities. It became habit.

How important is that habit approach to your career?
SH: I believe writing has to be habit. You can’t be expending your will, forcing yourself to write, seeing yourself as heroic, you’ve just gotta be a yeoman, a sod carrier, a ditch digger. You get up at a certain time, you plod into the room, you sit at the keyboard, and you hit the keys — maybe something good comes out, maybe it doesn’t, but you do it every single day over a long period of time. It’s no big deal; it doesn’t define your life. You don’t talk about it; it’s just a thing that you do. To me, it’s stunning how quickly the pages will stack up and how quickly you can turn out a book without a lot of drama. Drama is not your friend. You want to be boring, pedantic, and habitual. That’s the way you get it done.

You’ve been prolific. How do you avoid getting burned out?
SH: You have to learn to forgive yourself, you can do an awful lot of bad writing before you do some good writing; it just takes experience, doing it everyday, finding the rhythms, and finding an empathetic connection to your characters so that they’re sort of controlling what they do even more than you. If you can get yourself into that almost hypnotic situation, where your subconscious does most of the work and your fingers do the rest while your conscious brain is sort of snoozing through it all.

g man book

What did you take most from your time in print media?
SH: Well, I always wanted to be a critic. I wanted to be a critic from a very young age. I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I was around 12 years old, and goddamn it, that’s exactly what I became. Now, I entered journalism and I was a copyreader and a pretty poor one and I made a lot of mistakes. I stayed with it, caught some breaks, I started to get to know some people. To be quite honest, the first two books were written before I became a film critic and one of the points of them was to validate myself for the newspaper — no one else on the newspaper was publishing novels, and I knew that if I was publishing novels, that would make a me a celebrity. People would say ‘Do you know what that guy is doing!? That guy, that goofy-looking guy, just got a book deal with some New York publisher.’ They weren’t inclined to pay attention to me but now they had to pay attention to me. That really was instrumental to me, even getting to the point where I could be considered for the movie critic’s job when it came up.

Portrait of a happy man: A shooter with lots of someone else’s ammunition.

Portrait of a happy man: A shooter with lots of someone else’s ammunition.

There was a kind of rhythm between the two careers where each one sort of helped the other prosper, and it worked out for me. Once it started working out for me was that I didn’t want to lose it. Writing the books was a way of becoming a movie critic and once I became one, I saw how the books really helped my reputation on the newspaper, and I didn’t want to give that up. This was on the Sun. On the Post, there were a lot of “celebrity” journalists so I was just another fish in the pond, but on the Sun it validated me, and I was just so fortunate that the two things worked together and that I was able to do both at the same time. I also had two kids — my wife did most of the work but the kids turned out real well — but I am more proud of that than anything I ever did banging my head against the keyboard.


Your writing stint with the Pentagon and your military service, how did that shape your values as well as your writing? Did that begin Bob Lee Swagger’s development unofficially?
SH: I always say I got a lot more out of the Army than the Army got out of me. I wasn’t a particularly good soldier [laughs]. If I had been in your platoon you would have been very disappointed in me; I’m that guy. That time was crucial to me, however. It let me be in a large organization that didn’t give a damn about how I felt and I think that is key experience for any young man. I think one of the problems emerging in our country is that nobody young except in the military has that experience anymore. So they feel they don’t have to adapt to anything and can be so entitled. As we know, when the captain tells the PFC [private first class] to move to the left, the PFC doesn’t dare say, ‘Sir, I’m not really in a leftward movement mood.’ He’s got to obey and that’s a discipline that’s very helpful to you later on in life. People are counting on you to do what you say you’re going to do instead of what you feel like.

Baltimore, Md, 6/23/17--- Author Stephen Hunter says that he orders reading glasses in bulk, because he constantly misplaces them. On left are decorations from a Super Bowl party for the Baltimore Ravens held several years ago.. /// photograph by Jed Kirschbaum--digital image_EJK1757

What motivated you to write American Gunfight?
SH: It was a challenge to write a nonfiction story about a gunfight. I didn’t want the story of that secret serviceman to be forgotten. We shouldn’t forget these people; they died for us. We forget what people went through to get us where we are and that’s wrong, and they deserve real attention and not Hollywood crap. We forget faster than we can pop popcorn, and in my little tiny way, I’m just trying to reclaim memories of that past that I think shouldn’t be forgotten.

Is Bob Lee Swagger an amalgam of those values and people you’ve known or read about?
SH: It’s a combination of both, though admittedly I don’t like to talk to real snipers. The reason is, I have to have a certain distance, otherwise I feel an obligation to that person and their knowledge as opposed to the freedom of making things up. I will do the research of the guns and put into it what it takes to make a 900-yard shot, but I don’t want the particularities of an individual to cross wavelengths with the character. I prefer the freedom to take Bob where I want to take him. I have to keep him focused in watching him grow, even now he has a sense of humor.

Of course I have to ask about the movie. When the Shooter movie got made, how did you participate in it?
SH: They were very good to me; they flew me out to the set. I actually did a cameo, which didn’t make it into the film. Everybody was very nice to me, a lot of people want me to criticize Mark Wahlberg because maybe he wasn’t who they wanted for Bob Lee, but that movie happened because of Mark Wahlberg, so God bless him.

Work, work, work. Rain or shine, happy or sad, drunk or sober, he hits it every damn day.

Work, work, work. Rain or shine, happy or sad, drunk or sober, he hits it every damn day.

How did he push to get the film made?
SH: He was looking at scripts and Lorenzo di Bonaventura brought him the script, and he loved it. In fact, he and Mark Wahlberg are producing the TV series Shooter that is out now. They have a loyalty to the character and the subject, and you can’t buy that. The movie didn’t do that well but to see it back on TV 10 years later is because of their loyalty to the character, and that’s extremely gratifying to me. I still remain focused on the character as I always have; it was great to have this stuff happen, but my work is still my journey.

When you developed Bob Lee Swagger, when did you know he was going to be your recurring superstar?
SH: The honest answer to that is after 10 books. I still haven’t done that. I had no idea when I wrote the first one that it would be a series. It brought up issues that provoked me and each time I would write another book that was really the process. Like I say I wasn’t on a crusade or imagining some huge story arc, I just found interesting issues for him to confront. There are interesting issues regarding his family — his America versus the America we saw in the news. If something interests me, it creates a buzz or a crackle and in that is energy, and if I don’t get that buzz, I don’t get the energy, and if I don’t get the energy, I don’t get off the sofa. It would have been really easy for me to spend a life on the sofa, but somehow I always found some little crackle that got me to the keyboard. It’s gotta be habitual, but its also gotta be something that gets your imagination. You do your best when you’re highly engaged. So many people think Point of Impact is my best book and when I was writing that book, I had been buying rifles and trying to learn how to shoot a rifle. I found that enormously fascinating and obsessively interesting. I think that enthusiasm was information flooding me in and maybe that’s why people like that book. Maybe there was a transfer of emotion readers can feel that I have no distinct memories of.

stephen hunter pistol

When did you first become a firearms enthusiast?
SH: If you asked me when I first loved guns, I would say, I never first loved guns; I always first loved guns and when I first saw a gun it touched something inside that was already there. I’m 71, and I’ve been enamored by firearms for about 66 years, and it’s been such a fun 66 years. The guns have given me the energy, taken me places, introduced me to people, and made my life very interesting. I really have gratitude to the guns themselves and to the gun culture. I know I could write a $10-million bestseller if I wrote a book about Bob Lee Swagger giving up the gun — ain’t gonna do it, not gonna do it, go f*ck yourself, no way in hell! The guns have been good to me, and I’ll try to be good to the guns.

What are you favorite firearms to shoot in your collection?
SH: I love the classics; I love the 1911 in a variety of calibers, been shooting a Springfield 9mm Ranger Officer. A gun storeowner who is a good friend of mine gave me a Doug Turnbull beautifully rebuilt .45 Commander, because he thought it would be something Earl Swagger would use. It’s a 1911 frame, which Turnbull has case-hardened with that royal blue slide mounted with a pair of classic sights. It’s a beautiful firearm.

Proving that despite a Pulitzer Prize and half-a-dozen bestsellers, the man doesn’t take himself too seriously. The Thompson, by the way, is a theatrical prop, not the real thing.

Proving that despite a Pulitzer Prize and half-a-dozen bestsellers, the man doesn’t take himself too seriously. The Thompson, by the way, is a theatrical prop, not the real thing.

I’ve also recently acquired a SIG SAUER P226 with their Romeo red-dot sight. For as much as I love and admire marksmanship and people who can shoot well, especially under pressure, the secret shame of Stephen Hunter is that he’s just a little bit better than mediocre [laughs]. I’ve just never been able to break myself of the five-shot group, which is three touching, one a ½-inch off and the fifth one somewhere in the next county. I don’t know where that goddamn fifth one comes from, but I cannot make it go away [laughs]! I’m 71, and I still consider myself a learner. I’m working on my trigger pull — that fifth shot is probably a jerk or twitch I’m determined to work on and that’s all part of the fun of everything.

You’re known for the vivid detail and tension of your writing. The visual cues spring to life. Does your shooting experience help to bring a reality to these written scenes?
SH: I would say yes — knowing how the guns feel, what they weigh, how loud they are. I’ve never been in a gunfight, but I have done a lot of IPSC shooting, and I think those definitely contribute to the written scenes I am particularly proud of or worked particularly hard on. It makes those sequences better, but that visual expression is something I’ve had a bit of a knack for, I don’t know exactly where it came from. The fact that I learned about the guns helps, but I had a certain gift for that to begin with, so that added realism just enhances things.

This is your 10th novel in the Bob Lee Swagger series. How does that feel?
SH: Like I say, I never intended for the character to have such longevity in the beginning. It’s still fun. I realize that I’m a very lucky man, and I get to do what I love. It would be great if they were all best sellers, but the real reward is when I hold that finished manuscript in my hand, and I take it up to FedEx and send it off to New York. That is a hell of a feeling — that’s the reward, everything else is secondary.

Stephen Hunter
Hometown: “I’d have to say Baltimore, been here 40 years”
Family: Wife, two children from first marriage
Firearms Collection: “A few model 70s; two Browning Hi Powers; five or six 1911s; K-, L-, and N-frame Smith & Wesson (.44s, .357); Colts, two or three Peacemakers; several Glocks; HK P7s; a P9; VP9; Mausers; I love a lot of the classics and cartridge firearms.”
EDC: “I wish I could get a CCW license, it’ll probably never happen, but if I did, it would be a Glock 43. Flat sufficiently powerful, good fit.”

stephen hunter rifle

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