A straight-shooting friend borrowed my name

The Baltimore Sun

Does my name sound familiar? It may be because you've heard about Shooter, a new film starring Mark Wahlberg as former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger.

The movie is based on Stephen Hunter's novel, Point of Impact in which Steve, my former Sun colleague and shooting buddy, gave the hero my surname.

In fact, it's one of six Hunter novels featuring the character Bob Lee Swagger or his extended family.

But let's get a few things straight. I don't look like Mark Wahlberg; I'm much more handsome. (That's what my girlfriend, Denise, tells me, and why would I argue?) I have children older than Mr. Wahlberg and I suspect that I look a lot more menacing carrying a rifle than he does, although he's a good-looking and accomplished actor.

Bob Lee Swagger isn't my alter-ego, either. While I'm a pretty good rifleman and hunter of the practical variety, my shooting and possible courage have never been tested in combat. The only times I've been shot at happened when I was a news photographer covering race riots in the late 1960s.

As a newspaper picture editor, my adventures are confined to photos and the printed page, a situation that suits me just fine.

Most of my friends and family members neither know nor care about my connection with Steve's novels, although my daughter, Kaity, a 21-year-old college student, has threatened to tell her friends that Mark Wahlberg is playing her dad in a movie. She finds the concept hilarious.

Steve Hunter enjoys sprinkling the names of his friends and co-workers through his novels. In one of his novels, an official demands the best investigators available: "Get me Wigler and Marbella!" Stephen Wigler, then a music critic, and Jean Marbella, a features writer (who later became Steve Hunter's wife), both had desks within a few yards of Steve's.

But naming the lead character of a novel after a friend is a step further.

I didn't know Steve before his Master Sniper was published in 1980, and, when it came out, I was surprised to find someone in the newsroom who was clearly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about shooting. That hobby wasn't and isn't politically correct. Neither am I, so I knew we could get along.

We talked guns and books and occasionally went to the rifle and pistol range together.

Now, no matter how thoroughly he researches (and Steve is very thorough), no writer knows everything, and many authors call on their friends for advice in special areas.

When he began working on Point of Impact, a story about a country boy turned sniper, it was logical that he turned to me. Steve grew up as a city kid, while, as a child, I had lived on a farm in West Virginia, in an area that didn't yet have electricity or telephones. In my world, all of the men were veterans of World War II, every farm had guns and all men and boys were hunters. I knew the territory.

When I read the first page of the draft of Impact, I laughed. There was the hero with my name and I thought it was a good joke. But in the following pages, it turned out that Steve was serious.

Swagger's a pretty good name for a hero. In its current American meaning, "swagger" suggests confidence, a trait we like in the good guy. Since my family background includes German roots I've long suspected that Swagger is derived from schweiger, meaning sausage. That tickles my fancy.

Along with Steve's other friends, I've helped with or edited all six of the novels that include Bob Lee Swagger, his father, Earl, and Bob's evil half-brother, Lamar Pye. I've helped polish the details of Steve's novels, but the rousing stories and the excellent writing are all his.

Although, if there's a Shooter II, I guess I'll be partly to blame. You see, after Steve finished Point of Impact and sent it off to the publisher, I wasn't quite ready to see my namesake retire.

I wrote a two-page suggestion for a sequel and sent it to Steve.

He rejected that idea out of hand, saying he had done all that he wanted with the character and the situation.

But a couple days later, Steve had rethought my suggestion. He dashed off an 11-page outline for a new novel, Black Light. The story bore no resemblance to my original idea; it was much better. But with the publication first of Dirty White Boys and then Black Light, the stories of Bob Lee and his family became a series.

And poor Steve may never be able to stop.


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