BookView Interview with Author Marvin Wolf

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed Marvin Wolf, the author of 20 books, including five novels, and a screenplay for USA Network, 2005, Wolf is a charter member of Independent Writers of Southern California and four time past president. He also belongs to the Writers Guild of America,West, Mystery Writers of America, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the USMC Combat Correspondents Association. He served in Vietnam as a combat photographer and was awarded a battlefield commission as well as the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

Wolf’s most recent nonfiction book is They Were Solders, The Sacrifices and Contributions of Our Vietnam Veterans, co-written with legendary war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, published in May 2020 by a division of HarperCollins.

There’s the man, and there’s his work. The man is short and bulky, which belie the attainments of his youth: Army drill instructor, Ranger hand-to-hand combat coach, combat photographer, company commander. Risky business—as is the life of a freelance writer. He’s met criminals, up close and personal, and he’s rubbed elbows with the famous and accomplished. His writing can be edgy or stylish or proletarian, as the work requires. He’s nearer the end of his voyage than the beginning so he can skate on the edge or dive into deep, dark waters. He’s a writer, pure and simple. 

Marvin J. Wolf

The author of 20 books, including five novels, and a screenplay for USA Network, 2005, Wolf is a charter member of Independent Writers of Southern California and four time past president. He also belongs to the Writers Guild of America,West, Mystery Writers of America, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the USMC Combat Correspondents Association. He served in Vietnam as a combat photographer and was awarded a battlefield commission as well as the Bronze Star, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

Wolf’s first book, The Japanese Conspiracy (Empire Books, 1983) was an investigative exposé of the decades-long secret collusion between the Japanese government and industrial conglomerates in violation of international trade agreements. 

Since then, he has authored or collaborated as co-author or ghost writer to produce well-regarded autobiographies of ABC Broadcasting founder Leonard Goldenson (Beating The Odds), Native American leader Russell Means (Where White Men Fear To Tread,) and former South Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky (Buddha’s Child). His last book (February 2015) is Abandoned  In Hell, The Fight For Vietnam’s Firebase Kate. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Ladies Night, a feature-length movie for the USA Network based on one of his own books.

Wolf’s most recent nonfiction book is They Were Solders, The Sacrifices and Contributions of Our Vietnam Veterans, co-written with legendary war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, published in May 2020 by a division of HarperCollins.

Wolf lives in Asheville NC with his adult daughter and a spoiled dog.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

“When I was three, my older sister started first grade. Every day after school, my mother would make us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and we’d sit at the dining room table—me on a telephone book—and Mom would go over her lessons with us. In this way I learned to read at a very young age, It was a while before I realized the great advantage this skill had bestowed. But by the time I started first grade—I was by then reading at third grade level—I realized that simply because I could read and none of my classmates could, I had power. The smarter kids sometimes asked me to help them. Some of the others were jealous and decided that they had a different kind of power. I had to suffer a few beatings before I realized that often it’s smarter to be quiet than right,”

How often do you base your characters on real people?

“I rarely base a character on someone I know or know about, although I’m not above appropriating the name, for example, of a notorious counterfeiter and giving it to an eager Secret Service agent.”

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

“One and a half.”

What does literary success look like to you?

“To me there are two kinds of literary success: That many people have read and enjoyed my work, and/or that I am well paid for my efforts.”

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

“That depends on the book and how far along I am in my conceptualizing. It also depends on whether it is fiction or not. Most of my books have been nonfiction, and in every instance I did weeks to months of research before starting to write. For fiction, the story often evolves in my mind as I go along from a well-researched starting point to what I have earlier decided was the climax and the end.”

What’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?

“Believe it or not, while stories are made up from whole cloth—or spools of thread—the facts of the world my characters inhabit must be accurate, and if possible, interesting. So, if I am describing the work of a helicopter pilot, I must be able to write accurately about how he goes about this, what his aircraft can do and what it cannot. This stricture applies across the board, and especially to geographic settings. If I haven’t been to, say, Moscow, I spend a lot of time studying Google Maps. But the most difficult thing is always dialog. I used to write screenplays with a partner. We’d talk through a scene, and then I’d write it and read it aloud to him. He would often stop me in the middle of a character’s sentence. “That’s too on-the-nose,” he’d say. “Find a way to answer the other character without parroting back the question.”

How many hours a day do you write?

“I used to write as much as ten or twelve hours a day. But I’m older now and five or six is the most I can do while remaining at my best.”

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

“On balance, I’d say it hurts. Few are truly as talented as the few dozen great writers that each generation produces. A little modesty goes a long away in accepting advice from peers, from literary agents and from editors. They are human so not everything they may say about one’s work is completely accurate. But more often than not, they will see something that the writer has missed. Writers whose egos outweigh their talent seldom get far.”

How often you read?

“I read books for entertainment and various sorts of information almost every night before sleep. I read a daily newspaper every day.”

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

“I write for myself. If it pleases me, if I am entertained or moved or frightened when I read my own work months after I wrote it, then I’m happy. If people like what I write, so much the better, but I’ve learned long ago that I cannot possibly please everyone, and that while most book readers are reasonably smart and knowledgeable about books in general, some are not. The best example of that in my own experience is with my book Abandoned In Hell: The Fight For Vietnam’s Firebase Kate. This is an account of a previously little-known battle, and in terms of acclaim and sales, one of my most successful. Nevertheless, one reader opened the book and came to the glossary, which I put in front because for those without military experience there are close to a hundred terms that need defining so the reader can more easily follow the story. The reader in question came to that page and decided that the book resembled a field manual. He stopped reading and gave me a one star rating on Amazon because he was too ignorant to understand what he was looking at. There is nothing that can be done about things like this, so I don’t trouble myself.”

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

“It’s possible, but I don’t know a writer who doesn’t strive to evoke strong feelings of one sort or another.”

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

“Patience, patience, patience. Slow down, hotshot, and let your work cool down. Then, in a week or so, go back to it and fix all the terrible mistakes you made.”

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

It was the biggest change in my professional life. I was for years not a writer but a photojournalist who could write just well enough for an editor to fix after he or she bought several of my pictures—the text was what tied them together. I was in Japan, many years ago, photographing inside Epson’s factories in Matsumoto and observed the way in which workers were treated and the conditions under which they worked. This was the opposite of everything I’d read on the subject, so I resolved to write a magazine piece about it. Instead a publisher looking for a book about Japan offered me a book contract, subject to approval of my proposal. I had never written a proposal, much less a book, but the publisher, who was also the editor-in-chief, was patient with me and explained the process in detail. Writing that book widened my view of my capabilities and showed me how to overcome my shortcomings, which were abundant.”

How do you select the names of your characters?

“I try to build the characters in my mind before naming them. Then I may attach an ethnicity, if they are a major character, and use the Internet to find many examples of family and given names. I try to choose something easy to pronounce, to read in one quick glance, and easy to remember. Sometimes I use the name of people I’ve met and known more than slightly, simply because they are easy to recall. Or I will give an important character a name that others might have teased him about, such as Willson (stet: Willson) Voit Spaulding. Or I’ll give an Asian an Anglo name, perhaps one incongruous with their appearance.”

Do you read your book reviews? Do they please you or annoy you? Do you think you can learn a lot from reading criticism about your work?

“I do read my reviews. There is much to be learned in how others perceive my work—both good or not so good. And when the reviews are not flattering, I remind myself the reviewer is discussing my work, not me, personally.”

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