Stephen Hunter's 18th novel teams his favorite character, Bob Lee Swagger, with a newspaper reporter. They are chasing the mystery of a remarkable World War II Russian sniper — a woman — who appears to have been erased from history. In "Sniper's Honor," the pair are on a research trip in the Carpathian Mountains, and someone is trying to kill them.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, now retired from The Washington Post, got his start at The Baltimore Sun. If it weren't for the success of Swagger and his fellow characters, Hunter says, he would probably be a grouchy old copy editor.
Hunter, who will headline The Baltimore Sun Book Club on Tuesday evening, took time from his own target practice to answer a few questions.
What is it about guns? You have written 18 novels and in almost all of them, guns share top billing with your human heroes. How did you decide to make them such a major character in your fiction?
I sell imagination. It's my only product. I need little EKG blips of electricity or I'm the oldest, fattest, bitterest, dumbest, slowest, least reliable guy on the copy desk. No [wife], no [home in] Federal Hill, no "Shooter" — just a lot of regrets. The guns make that EKG line crackle reliably. Nothing else does.
In your latest book, "Sniper's Honor," your hero, Bob Lee Swagger, ends up in Ukraine chasing the story of a famous Russian sniper who has been erased from history. Why Ukraine? And is Mili a historical figure?
Mili is a composite of the 10,000 Russian female snipers who suffered many but delivered a lot more casualties. I felt she had never gotten her heroic due in American pop culture. So this was my attempt. I chose Ukraine because it had much better mountains than Belarus, plus you could get into it without a visa.
My good friend, The Washington Post Moscow correspondent Kathy Lally, met me there and we had a marvelous adventure in the Carpathians. This, of course, was before Vladimir Putin decided to play Panzerkorps Kommandant, and the living was sweet and easy, with nobody getting shot or rocketed. The Carpathians reminded me of the Wisconsin Dells in the '50s, beautiful, rustic, a little woebegone but full of hope for the future. Hate to see it go Russian, as the Ukrainians have turned [toward the] West, and they want to be Wisconsin, not Ukrainisburg.
Are you working on a new book now? If so, tell us a little about it.
What's called in the trade a "standalone." Not saying I'm done with Swagger, but it's time to let the old guy rest a spell. Instead I've turned my attentions to the original dirty white boy — Jack the Ripper, Whitechapel, London, 1888.
In that year, the British Empire led the world in conquest, engineering, architecture, literature, medicine and serial killing. And Sherlock Holmes wasn't around to help. So I've had great fun in Whitechapel's seedy alleyways chasing the smiler with the knife.
And your shooting? When do you make time for that?
Quite a bit, probably three, four times a week. It's like a trip to a masseuse, only louder. Keeps me relaxed, feeling as if progress is being made as I migrate toward the ideal of hitting the target every time I aim (still a long way from perfection). He eats, shoots, and writes, and that's about it.
I understand you have some television and movie projects in the works. Can you tell us anything about them? And are there frustrations writing for media where you are not in complete control of the story?
My other-media projects sound impressive. On the other hand, [it's possible none of them will happen.] It's best not to get too excited. Three movies "in development" are "Dirty White Boys," "Hot Springs" and "The 47th Samurai." What does "in development" mean? I have no idea. And they won't tell you. Also a TV series based on [the movie] "Shooter," which was based on "Point of Impact." If it gets on air, I get $1.63 every time it airs, which I can use on ammo. You're sure this is how Stephen King got so rich?
As for frustrations, yes, many when you're not in control. But if you cash the check, it's bad form to complain, at least to people other than my poor wife. So I don't.
Your wife and my co-worker, Jean Marbella, says you are a huge sports fan. What are your thoughts on the Ray Rice incident and the other nonfootball issues facing the NFL right now?
I have nothing to say on sports except "Go Ravens" and "Thank you, Birds, for a great summer."
You were an esteemed movie critic for The Baltimore Sun for years and you won a Pulitzer Prize for your film criticism while working for The Washington Post. What's the last movie you saw, and what did you think of it?
I take it you mean the last movie I saw in the theater, with popcorn, cellphones, loud teenagers, lonely old men and gum on the floor. Hmm ... hard to remember. I know it didn't have vampires, orcs or dwarfs or Taylor Lautner. ...
I know I will see "Fury" when it opens, as I have a thing (obviously) for World War II. I did see "Godzilla," and found it surprisingly amusing, though I like it when a big monster lizard comes to town — "Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" being seminal in my development.
I remember now. It was "The Equalizer." Did he really have to blow up a ship?