Stephen Hunter: Soft Target

Today is the official publication date of Stephen Hunter’s new thriller, Soft Target. Steve is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former film critic of the Washington Post and one of our favorite writers. Glenn Reynolds concisely comments: “Love him, and his books.”

Steve has graciously accepted our invitation to bring his new book to the attention of our readers. Steve writes:

Some books write themselves. Some don’t. The former are beloved as labors of love. The latter are labors of, er, labor, and are the unwanted step-children of the writing business.

My novel Soft Target started as the latter. At a certain point, I think it was trying to kill me. It was the Thing in the Office, reeking of malevolence. It stank of mediocrity, infantility, and sheer inertia.

It plain sucked. Reading it was like pulling teeth. Writing it was like pulling teeth with a hammer.

Why? It was, after all, my own idea, and it was a good idea: On Black Friday, a group of heavily armed terrorists take over a mall very like that big one in Minneapolis. After a few dozen sport killings, they herd a thousand hostages into the amusement park at the center of the building, and dare the authorities to attack. Eventually, the authorities do attack. The whole thing takes place in real time, flashes from here to there and back again for maximum dramatic effect.

It combines two American obsessions: mass murder and shopping. It has SWAT teams, cool guns, cool gunfights, heroes, shirkers, fools, knaves and other assorted colorful types. Plus you get to see someone machinegun a really big box store, and who doesn’t want to see that? And all this says nothing about roller coasters, log flumes, lots of radio speak (like, “Dog-one, in pos for assault, commencing now”) Kevlar, snipers on the roof an 300 media helicopters above them.

However, I didn’t give a damn about it and for a while, as I say, I thought it was trying to get its fingers around my neck and crush the life out of me. It had everything but soul.

A writer needs soul. By that I mean something deep in the project that profoundly provokes the imagination, that enables the thing in gestation to become a thing in life. You can’t buy this stuff, or I would have. Maybe soul isn’t the right word. ‘Heart’ doesn’t quite work either. “Zeitgeist” is too trite, raison d’etre too cornball. Go back to MacLeish and turn it on its head: “A poem does not mean but be.”

But a novel does not be, it means. It has to have that leverage onpolicy or emotion or issue or whatever: a moral center. That’s sort of it: I had to find a way to let it, er, ‘mean’

Enter, stage left, Barack Obama. Remember how he preened when Osama got killed. He seemed to push out the actual door-kickers who did the deed aside, and turned the thing into a celebration of the self. Lord, I hated that. You don’t claim another man’s bravery. It just isn’t done.

And so it occurred to me that I could change my book into a kind of allegory of the war on terror, with a publicity-hungry suit running the show for the cameras and claiming all credit, while the actual tactical people were pushed aside and warned to keep their mouths shut. Their risking, fighting and dying meant nothing compared to the ego and ambition of The One.

Somehow that conceit galvanized me. Food tasted good again, the stairs weren’t as steep, the seat so hard, the keyboard so sluggish. From that point on, the book ust ripped along. So I give you, in the end, the war at America, the Mall, and you will sense that it’s the war at America, the country. Was I fair? Of course not. Will it cost me readers? Of course.

But as Pike says to Dutch, or maybe Dutch to Pike, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Enjoy.

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