author interview – Joseph Garber: On The “Run”

In 1995 a killer of a thriller called “Vertical Run” made it`s debut on The New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists, eventually reaching #1 on both lists. Itwas written by a relatively unknown writer named Joseph Garber. While he`d had success with the 1989 book “Rascal Money”, as well as writing literary criticisms for The San Francisco Review of Books and as a columnist for Forbes magazine, nothing he had done could have prepared readers for what they were to find within the pages of “Vertical Run”, a tale so frightening in it`s possibility that it makes the hairs on your neck stand on end just reading it.

The premise of Vertical Run is to question what might happen if one day you woke up and found that everyone you met during the course of your day tried to kill you. Friends, family, coworkers…they all want you dead for no apparent reason and time is running. These are exactly the prospects the hero of the book, David Elliot, a Fortune 500 exec, faces one morning. But lucky for David, he`s had training as a special operations agent courtesy of the U.S. government and if he`s going to die, he`s not going to die alone.

In Joseph Garber`s 1999 follow up novel “In A Perfect State”, he once again visits this premise, but this time he tinkers with the hero a bit. Jack Taft, another executive for a prosperous company, is on a business trip to Singapore, upon when landing, realizes he`s the target of an international assassination squad, with dozens of different factions wanting him dead–now! Unlike David Elliot, Jack Taft has no special training to fall back on and has run from every personal problem life has ever thrown at him. If he doesn`t dig deep and find the skills inside of himself to survive, he`ll be dead by dawn.

If Mr. Garber was interested in the prospect, he could easily become the Ian Fleming of the new millenium, cranking out thrillers based on the exploits of our `Run` hero David Elliot. He knows how to grab your attention and keep it as he ratchets up the tension notch by notch until the reader can barely take it anymore. Vertical Run is the type of thriller Ian Fleming would be proud of. Garber has created the most exciting and dynamic hero to be found on the printed pages since the mid-50`s Fleming novels. Not even Tom Clancy`s Jack Ryan is as energizing and invigorating as David Elliot.

If you haven`t read “Vertical Run” or “In A Perfect State”, what are you waiting for? “Vertical Run” can be ordered from and “In A Perfect State” can be ordered from

The following interview contains SPOILERS! If you have not read the books you are advised to read them before proceeding any further.

MK: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

JG: Being a classic “Type A” corporate workaholic, I`ve had little in the way of a personal life. For this reason, I tend to be a private person in the small amount of private life I`ve managed to accumulate. I think the points that are germane to my novels are that I took my undergraduate degree in philosophy (which is why ethical questions pervade my novels), put in time at Columbia Law School (that`s the reason why every book I write contains at least one lawyer joke), and went through the Stanford Business School`s mid-career executive program (the experience convinced me to get try my hand at writing!).

MK: You are somewhat fascinated by the idea of an “everyman” waking up one day and finding himself in incredible life threatening situations, with no logical reason why and seemingly impossible to get out of. What kind of influences in literature or film do you credit for this?

JG: I certainly had Hitchcock in mind when I wrote Vertical Run. And surely I was influenced by the late Geoffrey Household whose man-on-the-run thrillers are the best ever written (try his Dance of The Dwarves, which is the scariest novel I have ever read). However, the fundamental premise of Vertical Run is pretty much of my own concocting. I framed it as the ultimate paranoid nightmare: suppose everybody in the world wants you dead; worse, suppose they`ve got a really good reason…

Further, if you`re a corporate guy, you`ve got to deal with corporate politics. No matter how nice you are, no matter how hard you try, you are going to wind up with enemies who want you out of the way. To some extent Vertical Run was inspired by taking that unfortunate fact of business life and carrying it to its utmost extreme.

MK: Did you have any difficulties in pitching Vertical Run to the publishers? What is the process like for getting a manuscript in the door?

JG: My agent did all the pitchwork on the book, and more than earned her fees. The book received 14 rejection slips, by the way. Most frustrating because both she and I thought it was a slam dunk and easy sale.

There`s a cute story here: when she first got the manuscript, my agent put it in the trunk of her car prior to going upstate for the weekend. Then she drove to her office, parked outside, and dashed upstairs for a few minutes. By the time she got back (welcome to New York), the car had been burglarized, and the manuscript was gone.

The burglar dumped it (along with other stuff he didn`t want) on the street in Queens. A hairdresser found it, and read it over the weekend. On Monday he called my agent and told her that he had it, and would be happy to return it. She offered him a reward for his trouble. He declined. She insisted. To which he replied, “The only reward I want is a signed copy of the book, because it`s the best thriller I`ve ever read.” So my agent knew she had hit… and the hairdresser DEFINITELY got a signed copy.

As for getting a manuscript in front of a publisher — well, the agent knows editors at all the publishing houses, and knows what fits their tastes. So she calls them with a pitch, sending the thing over if they sniff at the bait. If you are an unknown writer, you absolutely have to have a credible agent or nothing is going to happen. Agents are the rainmakers. Unfortunately, in these days of megaconglomeration, it`s tougher than ever to get an editor to take a risk on a writer no one has ever heard of.

MK: What`s your take on the mega-mergers such as AOL buying out Time Warner? What are the dangers, if any, of a company becoming that big?

JG: Consolidation is driven by a host of natural economic forces. For example, back around 1905 we had more than 500 automobile companies in this country; they had to join or die. Software companies acquire other software companies all the time (especially in the mainframe segment); here the issue is that it usually is much cheaper to buy rather than build. Acquisitions happen constantly in the business world — there are more than 35,000 a year. Within any given industry segment, a large number of acquisitions usually is a sign of the maturation and flattening — when natural or “organic” revenue growth slows, you have little choice other than to acquire smaller companies. Alas, those of us who lived through a similar wave of merger mania back in the early `70`s remember well that the majority of deals don`t work too well, and ultimately fall apart. Marry in haste, repent at leisure…

Speaking personally, I figure AOL is in for some surprises — the business practices and management skills it takes to run a creative enterprise (especially one involving film and TV) are not easy. Sony lost billions on Columbia before sorting things out. Panasonic did not have a happy experience with Universal (nor, it appears, is Seagrams). And of course TransAmerica`s experience with Hollywood is the stuff of legends — remember “Heaven`s Gate.”

Over the short term, I expect much sound and fury as various companies get eaten up — but then the eaters will have to digest the eaten. Upset tummies may be the very least of it.

MK: You said in another interview that you first conceived of the idea for Vertical Run back in 1976 when your office building was being evacuated due to a bomb long did that idea sit with you until you got serious about writing it into a thriller?

JG: Actually, the evacuations were in 1978-1979. I started writing Vertical Run in 1981, and got about a third of the way into it. Then a catastrophic computer failure wiped out all the work I did. No recovery. All gone. I was so frustrated I didn`t get back to the tale for 12 years.

Although I did learn to start backing up my disks…

MK: Was David Elliott the original hero of your book or did you have a different character in mind?

JG: Dave was the hero from day one.

MK: What kind of ideas did you originally have for the book that ended up being taken out by the publishers? For example, you`ve mentioned that the German edition is much darker than any other is; can you elaborate?

JG: The principal difference between my original version and what was published in this country is that Dave died at the end of the original version — as did Marge. The publisher (hoping for a sequel, no doubt) and Warner Brothers both wanted them to live. Insofar as Warner Brothers was paying quite good money for the service, I added the scene in which Marge is discovered alive and rescued, and added a single page ending that keeps Dave alive. The Germans liked the original, darker version and, with my permission, published it. In the final analysis, I think keeping both characters alive was a good choice — it delivers extra surprises and lets readers close the book with satisfied grins on their faces.

MK: What kind of research did you draw upon for creating David`s back-story in Vietnam and the big surprise he finds at Lockyear?

JG: I served in the Army in the 1960`s. Dave`s backstory arises from tales told me by various hardcases I met, and from some photographs taken of an episode that mirrors the climax of that backstory. The guys who took those photographs got, as Mamba Jack would say, “disappeared.”

As for the surprise at Lockyear, I`ve always been aware of the incredibly ghastly experiments conducted by Shiro Ishii and Unit 731 during World War II. The Japanese army used Chinese civilians and both American and British POWs as lab rats in a horribly large number of unspeakable medical tests. All of this was covered up quite thoroughly by American war crimes investigators, and it struck me as obvious that the reason for the coverup was that our nation wanted to get its hands on the Japanese research results. Now, fifty-five years after the fact, we know that is precisely what happened. Ed Regis just published a book called “The Biology of Doom” where, via the Freedom of Information Act, he tracks down the details. Read it and your blood will turn to ice.

MK: You mentioned that you had in mind Harrison Ford as David and Clint Eastwood as Ransom at some point during the writing. Did you have anyone specific in mind for the characters of Marge or Helen? What about Bernie or Harry Halliwell?

JG: Actually, I`ve always though Mel Gibson would make a more credible Dave — he`s the only actor I know who really is believable when he talks to himself. As for minor characters like Helen, Bernie, and Harry, I never gave them any thought. They are pretty standard New York City critters, people you see on the street every day, and could be played by any number of minor-part actors. In my mind Marge looks one heck of a lot like the young Olivia Goldsmith (author of The First Wives Club), a feisty New York dame who, long ago, was a friend and co-worker.

MK: Was there ever any suggestion made that perhaps the Marge character should become more romantically involved with David than she was or that she should be in more of the book?

JG: Nope. There`s no time for sex in the book. Hell, there`s barely time for lust.

MK: One of the more colorful passages in the book is where David has to escape the hookers and then infiltrate Senterex right under Ransom`s nose, all the while trying to come off as a limp wristed wimp to avoid detection. With words used such as “queer”, “pansy boy”, “faggot”, “cupcake”, “plaid rabbit” and “Smurf”, how did you get this past the publishers? After all, the 90`s were a very politically correct decade. Did they have any objections?

JG: No objections at all. The homophobia is all on the bad guys side (likewise the racism). Dave, who is an ex-soldier, is playing to the bigotries of people he knows are the worst sort of redneck pinheads. Anyone who was in the Army back when I was (as were Dave, Ransome, and his crew) probably at least once saw some lifer NCO go ballistic when somebody jokingly called him “fag.” Knowing this, Dave caricaturizes his enemies` prejudices, turning them into a weapon against them.

MK: Did you receive any mail from gay rights groups upset with the way you had David portray a gay man?

JG: Again, no. Quite the contrary. I was especially pleased when a gay literary critic for one of the major newspapers recognized the device for what it really says about bigotry and stereotypes, and singled out that section out for positive comment.

MK: The impression I received at the end of `Run` was that David was either selfish and only looking out for himself and that`s why he took off to Mount Excelsior or he just got lucky. After all, he didn`t know about the microbe`s mortality parameters when he took off to Excelsior. And yet you`ve maintained that he went there to die. In retrospect could this have been made clearer to the reader or is it somewhat vague so that the readers can draw their own conclusion?

JG: Hmmm. I intended to portray Dave`s motive as a wish to die with honor, to die alone, and to die in a way that did no harm. Remember, he knows the microbe cannot survive long outside a human host (Ransome makes this very clear). And so by going into the wilderness, he planned a death that would insure the infection would not spread.

MK: The end of the book also gives one the feeling that David, Jack and Marge are going to team up and plot revenge. Is that the intention, or just a reader reading too much into the story?

JG: If I were writing a script for the movie, the final scene would be as follows:

The San Francisco skyline.

Zoom into the black-glassed Bank of America Tower.

Long shot of a man walking through an office lobby with very visible signage reading “The Specialist Consulting Group.”

Tracking shot of the same man down a plush office corridor.

Medium shot as he enters a conference room.

Interior of the conference room — it is dark, smoky, lit from above so that all faces are in shadow. The man we`ve tracked mutters an apology for being late, and takes his seat.

Long shot down the length of the conference table. The man at the head of the conference table says, “Try to be on time.” Pause. “Okay, people, we`ve got a problem.” He waves a piece of paper. “I`ve just got a fax from HQ. It says that the Lockyear microbe is highly oxygen dependent. It says that anyone infected with the microbe who climbs into a thin oxygen environment may have a high probability of survival. Now we`ve tracked that bastard Elliot…”

Close shot of the speaker, he looks up.

Shot of the conference room door. A man backlit in shadow is standing there. Cut to man at the head of the table, “Yes?” Backlit man replies, “Oh sorry, wrong meeting room.”

Medium shot down conference table. Man at head of the table says, “Close the door behind you.”

Audible click as he continues, “Now as I was saying, if he survived, it is conceivable that Elliot will try to revenge himself…” There is a thump on the conference room table. Heads turn. A hissing hand grenade rolls into view. The man at the head of the table whispers, “Oh shit!”

Black out.

Roll the final credits.

MK: Has Doubleday or Bantam suggested to you that they would like for you to write a sequel to Vertical Run? To write more adventures based on the character of David Elliot?

JG: No. My relationship with that company has ended. Permanently.

MK: Where do you think David might be today, or do you not give it much thought?

JG: Really, I want that question to be answered by readers. I think whatever sequels and followups they concoct in their own minds are much more interesting than anything I might come up with.

MK: As you know Jon Peters is producing Vertical Run for Warner Brothers and it looks like Paul Hunter may direct. Have you spoken directly with anyone involved in the production of the film and if not do you anticipate having any input?

JG: I had a memorable lunch with Jon when Warners was buying the rights. It`s lawyers were insisting on preposterous contractual obligations, and I was quite prepared to walk away from the deal. Jon squelched `em. Since then, I`ve had no contact whatsoever with the film project.

A movie is the work of many hands. A book is a one man job. Books and films are two wholly different planets, and the citizens of one planet do not necessarily collaborate well with the citizens of the other. So, if the film is made, the most I anticipate is being invited to spend a day on the set and receiving an invitation to the premier (although, I suspect, the seat I`m assigned will not be the best in the house!)

MK: If you can tell us, what kind of rights exactly does Warner Brothers have on Vertical Run? The right to make a franchise out of the David Elliot character?

JG: The Warner contract states they have the rights to David Elliot “in perpetuity throughout the universe, and elsewhere.” They can make as many Dave Elliot movies as they want. Tom Clancy has the same problem with the hero of his books. Paramount can use Jack Ryan any way they want. This is pretty standard stuff in Hollywood. I doubt if any novelist escapes it

MK: What was your reaction when you first found out Vertical Run had made the top of several best sellers lists? Did you ever anticipate the kind of success Vertical Run had? There were even television commercials for the book, which is something you don`t see very often.

JG: Ah, a boyhood dream! From the age of sixteen onwards, I wanted to make the New York Times bestseller list. I was simply thrilled by the whole experience — it was like winning the lottery.

MK: As you are aware, the David Fincher/Michael Douglas 1997 film “The Game”, which I personally love, contains a lot of similarities with Vertical Run, though your novel clearly came out first. In both film and book you`ve got a middle aged businessman on the run for his life, dogged by a shadowy organization that wants him dead, for reasons he cannot understand, he can`t trust friends or family, and all the while being aided and abetted somewhat by a beautiful woman. And to a lesser extent, Will Smith`s “Enemy of the State” covers similar ground. Have you seen the films and if so, did you like them? And what will it take to keep Vertical Run different and fresh from these other films?

JG: I very much enjoy Fincher`s work — he`s a gifted director who knows how to block a scene, frame brilliant atmospherics, extract strong performances from the cast, and cut a montage that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Everything he`s made has great depth.

I think Vertical Run would be better as a director`s film rather than a formula action flick. Most of the conflict in the book is interior, and but for a few set pieces, the real battles go on inside Dave`s head. So I would prefer a small pyrotechnics budget, and rather see a tight psychological thriller built around an actor who can truly show paranoid fear. I think De Palma would make a good director. As would Fincher.

MK: Getting to the subject of James Bond..the way David looks at Marge…the thoughts he has towards her…one minute he could make love to her and the very next he punches her lights out…kind of reminds me of the Sean Connery era as Bond. The “love `em and leave `em” attitude Connery`s Bond had. Do you have a favorite Bond or Bond film?

JG: Ha! I hadn`t thought of that. But Dave definitely is not a love `em and leave `em type. He`s really trying to protect Marge — and also trying to escape the temptation she represents.

By any measure my favorite Bond movie is From Russia With Love. It kept closely to the novel, yet added an extra dimensions of thrills. Robert Shaw was perfect (and perfectly terrifying) as the unstoppable bad guy, and Connery was supported all around by very strong actors. I`d say the Bond novel that I liked most was the first I read: Doctor No. It was such a revelation — the outrageous velocity of the thing and meeting a character as fascinating as Bond for the first time. It left a permanent impression on me.

MK: What are your impressions of Ian Fleming and his novels?

JG: Fleming was a great entertainer and a natural story teller. These are honorable, although undervalued, professions. The guy had a fluid entrancing style, a vivid imagination, and subtle wit. You could tell he had a great deal of fun writing his novels — and, therefore, the rest of us have a great deal of fun reading them.

MK: Ever thought about what it might be like to write the Bond novels?

JG: I am not a fast writer and could never do a series. Pumping out a new book every year is beyond my talents. Moreover, I am obsessed with photographic realism for my settings and stage props. All the scenery in everything I`ve written is so real that I could take you step-by-step through every locale I`ve written about. The Bond books with their exotic settings would drive me nuts. I`d spend all my time researching and mapping out routes, and none of it writing! I`d be a disaster at that job.

MK: So if the publishers were to ever contact you to gauge your interest in writing for Bond, what would be your answer?

JG: That I like James Bond too much to see him die in so horrible a fashion.

MK: The character of Jack Taft in In A Perfect State (Garber`s next book after Vertical Run) is the complete opposite of David Elliot in terms of self esteem, athleticism, etc. How much of yourself do you incorporate into the heroes, or is it purely fictional?

JG: Purely fictional. Dave is a resourceful, highly trained professional with combat experience. In thinking about what to write next, almost the first question I asked myself was: what would happen if an ordinary peaceful civilian with no training suddenly found himself in a fight for his life? So when Jack Taft is surrounded by a small army of gun-toting thugs his reaction is to throw up his hands and scream, “I surrender.” Which is exactly what most of us would do. Unfortunately for Jack, this doesn`t work too well…

MK: When friends of yours read Vertical Run or In A Perfect State, might they recognize themselves in one of your characters?

JG: I doubt it. The only real person who (in both looks and personality) appears in my books is Thatcher — and Thatcher IS Mark Twain.

MK: Tell us a little about your next novel “Alexander`s End”. What can fans expect from this book?

JG: Alexander`s End is the story of a professional assassin — a late Renaissance master killer who also is a loving husband and father, a gentle philosopher, and generous patron of the arts. But also utterly ruthless in his work. I think of the story as being something of a hybrid between “Day of the Jackal” and “The Name of the Rose.” I want readers to be thrilled by the adventure of it — but also driven to think about the questions of ethics and morality a man like Alexander raises.

MK: What plans do you have after “Alexander`s End”?

JG: Next up will be “The Object of Her Wrath,” a contemporary thriller with the scariest premise I can imagine — truly, the few people to whom I`ve told it have winced and gone white. I started the book three years ago, but had problems which I think I`m now prepared to resolve. Like I said, I am not at fast writer. Not at all.

MK: If you can, briefly explain to fans why In A Perfect State was not released in the United States?

JG: The answer would make a great substitute for Sominex. It`s tied up in contracts, legalese, and the business practices of the publishing industry — truly boring stuff.

MK: Do you anticipate Alexanders End and Object of Her Wrath will receive a U.S. distribution?

JG: I hope so, but it is much too early for me even to guess.

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