An Interview with David Poyer

Copyright 1994 St. Martin’s Press

Readers of THE PASSAGE (St. Martin’s Press, 1995), David Poyer’s fourth novel featuring U.S. Navy officer Dan Lenson, may wonder whether the author has a crystal ball at home next to his computer. Although it was written well before tensions over Cuban refugees reached their current critical level, THE PASSAGE is eerily prescient in its portrait of relations between Cuba and the United States approaching military confrontation, sparked by the flight of masses of people from the Caribbean nation. Once again, Poyer’s fiction got there before the headlines did: his second Lenson novel, THE GULF (St. Martin’s Press, 1990, 1991 paperback), chronicled armed conflict in the Persian Gulf, but was conceived and plotted two years prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

“You don’t have to be a fortuneteller to see some things coming down the road,” says the author, whose experiences in the Navy and as a defense analyst may give him a slight edge over the rest of us. “I served in the Caribbean; I know the lay of the land, have sailed those seas, have been in Guantanamo Bay, so I knew where there were a lot of unresolved matters down there that would resurface either in Haiti or Cuba — or, as has happened now, in both, together. I considered both countries as background and finally decided on Cuba, because I knew the area a little better. Then I ran into some people who could tell me what life was like on a Cuban sugar cooperative — that often happens in writing: you lay out a direction, then all of a sudden the right people arrive on the scene, or you happen to read the right magazine article, and you know you’re on the right track.”

THE PASSAGE is timely in its themes as well as its setting. A storyline involving a homosexual officer addresses the question of how effectively gays can serve in the military, a spy subplot recalls the Walker scandal, and a computer virus is the thoroughly up-to-date means by which the traitor wreaks havoc on board the USS Barrett, where Lieutenant Lenson serves as weapons officer. “I approach a book a little bit like making vegetable soup. I take several questions, throw them all in the pot together, start simmering, then some things come up, a little seasoning goes in, and eventually I begin to grasp that these three or four different subplots are related, as they turned out to be in THE PASSAGE, where everyone is wearing a mask — Lenson eventually discovers that he’s been wearing masks too.”

Poyer knew he wanted to write from the time he was a small child: “I can’t recall if I was three or four, but I remember the moment clearly. My mother was reading to me, and suddenly I understood what books were, what stories were, and realized that I was put here to write them.” But for a kid growing up in northwestern Pennsylvania, the son in an impoverished family, life as a novelist seemed out of reach. “The Navy was a means of getting out of town, getting a college education, and also getting what anthropologists call `ascribed worth.’ After having grown up on government relief, I didn’t care about money, but I was very hungry for recognition and status. The Navy offered me that, and a career, and travel, so for all those reasons, I took it.”

He graduated from Annapolis in 1971, and served on destroyers and amphibious ships in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the Arctic — backgrounds he draws on in the Lenson novels. “THE MED (St. Martin’s Press, 1988) is based on the Cypriot crisis of 1974 — I was at sea in the amphibious group between the Turks and the Greeks during that skirmish — so the novel is drawn pretty directly from my experience. And I went up to the Arctic aboard a destroyer, looking for winter storms north of the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap just like in THE CIRCLE (St. Martin’s Press, 1992, 1993 paperback). But the other books are based more on research and less on my personal involvement.”

Research usually entails “more people-to-people interviews than library work. Of course, when I do use technology, it’s correct.” One of his great challenges, Poyer feels, is making the naval terminology comprehensible to civilian readers, while still being accurate enough to satisfy his military audience. “I start out defining my military terms in context; then, as the book goes on, I introduce more and more of them, especially in dialogue, because that’s the really critical area. So by the end, the characters are speaking pretty unadulterated naval jargon, but you can understand it because you’ve been gradually introduced to it.”

Poyer spent six years getting his own grounding in the active Navy before the lure of writing proved too strong. “My intention was to put in my time in the Navy, retire, and then write, but it didn’t work out that way. In 1976, I got out and headed for a South Sea island — kicked free of everything, grew a beard — I think it was delayed adolescence!” But he was also working hard at his craft: “I didn’t have any training in fiction, so I learned on the job, writing for pulp magazines and in my early novels, which were scattered all over the genres. All but the first were published, but the amount of time I put into them compared to the monetary return meant I was getting a little farther behind with each book.”

He went back to the real world in 1980, working on a nuclear submarine design for a shipbuilding firm in Newport News, Virginia, and rejoining the Navy as a reserve officer. It was a tough period. He was single after two failed marriages: “The first time, I was in the Navy and she wasn’t and I was never home; the second time, she was in the Navy and I wasn’t and she was never home.” But he didn’t have much time to feel lonely; he threw himself into a gruelling routine that included his job, classes at George Washington University — he got a masters degree in political science with a major in defense analysis — and writing novels during any time left over.

As if that wasn’t enough, “I was also putting myself through an autodidactic master’s degree in writing. I picked about a dozen writers I really respected and read everything they had done, from their very first work till the last, plus their biographies and letters, so I could see how they developed.” The authors he studied make an eclectic list: Dostoyevski, Solzhenitsyn, Mary Renault, Joseph Conrad, Aldous Huxley. Another strong influence was a near-contemporary, the late John Gardner. “I taught with him in western Virginia, and he was my idea of what a writer should be: impassioned, socially engaged, a meticulous craftsman, ruthless about what he had to do, but all the time very concerned for younger writers.”

It all came together for Poyer in 1988, when THE MED, the first of the Lenson books, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Praised by reviewers for is slam-bang pacing and three- dimensional characters, appreciated by military readers for its authenticity (it’s taught in the US Naval Academy’s “Literature of the Sea” course), THE MED became a bestseller and enabled its author to devote himself to writing fulltime. In that same year, he met his wife, the poet and fiction writer, Lenore Hart; the couple live in eastern Virginia with their daughter, Naia.

Poyer’s writing time is now divided among three series. The Navy books and the novels featuring diver Tiller Galloway (HATTERAS BLUE, BAHAMAS BLUE, and LOUISIANA BLUE) are published by St. Martin’s Press; a group of interrelated books set in Hemlock County in northwestern Pennsylvania — Winter in the Heart is the most recent — appear under the Tor Books imprint. “It breaks things up for me to alternate; it would be very difficult to write any of the series, one after another. After I go into the angst and the soul- searching of one of the Lenson novels, it’s nice to do a Tiller Galloway book, which is pure action/adventure, male camaraderie, diving; it’s faster paced, and I let myself have a little fun with it.”

“The Hemlock County novels take place in a much darker world. Not only do they have environmental themes, but there’s a class war going on: the common people are at the mercy of the rich and powerful. There’s a lot more anger, and the resolutions are darker. WINTER IN THE HEART was about toxic waste dumping, nursing home scams, teenage suicide, venereal disease and organized crime; the one I’m writing now is about growing old, children with AIDS, natural gas poaching and lumber stripping — they’re difficult to sell, I will say that!”

Occasionally, a non-series novel intrudes into his schedule. In 1993, Poyer “worked myself into eyestrain doing THE PASSAGE, LOUISIANA BLUE, and THE ONLY THING TO FEAR, which is a thriller set in 1945 about President Roosevelt, a young Naval reserve lieutenant named John F. Kennedy, and a movie star working together against two assassins. At one point, I ended up working on all three novels at once, but that was because THE ONLY THING TO FEAR was unplanned. I had to promise my agent not to do that again, but when the muse calls, you can’t say no.”

The author considers himself “an FDR-era liberal,” and his progressive sympathies are evident, not only in the Hemlock County books, but more implicitly in the Navy series, which offers a warts-and-all portrait of military life (“My job isn’t to glorify or to tear down the Navy,” explains Poyer, “it’s to paint a realistic picture”) and shows its hero’s prejudices being modified by experience.

“I don’t begin with a message,” comments the author. “I begin with a character and a plot, and in the process of developing them the book’s theme emerges. I may go back in subsequent drafts and touch it up a little bit, try to make it neater to carry that message, but I never start with that message in mind.”

Plots, however, are sketched out well in advance; the walls of Poyer’s office have built-in pigeonholes in which he stores books, clippings, interviews, and other references for future volumes. “The novels are blocked out roughly four to five books in advance; they may just exist as concepts in my head, but I do have that concept, and whenever I come across anything that would be useful it goes into the pigeonholes. I have things that I won’t write for ten years, but I’ve already got a sizeable stack of material. I’m an engineer by training, and engineers feel that craft is almost everything: they don’t ask where the road is going, they ask, `How can I build a bridge to support it?’ Well, as a novelist I’m not entirely unconcerned with where the road is going, but I certainly believe that the bridge has to hold the traffic.”

When not writing, he and Lenore Hart are active on behalf of public libraries — and not just because they met at a Friends of the Library luncheon in Florida. “I tooled myself for three professions in libraries,” says Poyer. “One of the messages I try to preach whenever I speak is to support your local library, because that’s what empowers common people. Without access to information, they’re impotent, but with access, with literacy, they become powerful. Power doesn’t grow out of the barrel of a gun; it grows out of the pages of a book.”

His own pages are scrutinized by his wife, a favor he returns. “I go through Lenore’s manuscripts and cross out every other adjective,” Poyer jokes. (Hart has a more ornate prose style.) “She goes through mine and points out the passages that are too technical and any problems with a female character.” They have a comfortable routine, with separate offices to which they repair after seeing their daughter off to school.  “Then when she comes home, we both come out of the offices and we’re a family again.”

“I’ve finally found the person I was meant to find,” says the writer. He feels equally fulfilled by his professional life. “My early novels, frankly, weren’t very good; I was writing in several genres and looking for my voice. Now I’ve identified the worlds I feel comfortable in — the Navy, present and historical; diving, and northwestern Pennsylvania — and can write about believably.”

In other words, for David Poyer, it looks to be clear skies, smooth sailing, and full speed ahead for the foreseeable future

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