Interviews, Speeches, Essays, and Biographical Articles
Coast to Coast radio interview, 2015. here.
Publisher’s Weekly interview, 2016 here.
WVIA-FM interview with Erika Funke in June 2018 here.
A 2013 interview about THE WHITENESS OF THE WHALE at Smoking Poet.com here
CIMSEC interview about ONSLAUGHT, 2017 here.
RETIREMENT CEREMONY, 9 JUNE 2001
ABOARD USS WISCONSIN AT NAUTICUS, NORFOLK
RADM Martin Janczak, USNR: Remarks
Good afternoon, and welcome to this ceremony on this fine day, on this impressive ship. Welcome to the USS Wisconsin, BB-64, one of the Navy’s most impressive ships and to the retirement ceremony marking the culmination of 34 years of uniformed service for Captain David C. Poyer, United States Naval Reserve, one of the Naval Reserve’s most impressive officers.
“DAVID POYER graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1971. His thirty-four years of active and reserve Navy service included sea duty in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific, and shore duty at Fleet Training Center, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Surface Warfare Development Group, and the US Atlantic Command/Joint Forces Command.”
This is the thumbnail sketch of his military career you’ll find on the back flap of one of Dave’s books. But it’s customary for the speaker at the occasion of a service member’s retirement to examine his or her career in considerably more detail. Sometimes this is a straightforward matter; at other times, it’s not so simple. Trying to summarize Dave Poyer’s course through life definitely falls under the rubric of “more complex.” His personal, naval, defense analytical, and literary careers have been so intertwined, and the relationships among them so involved, that someday someone will no doubt essay a Ph.D thesis on the subject. But as a former Animal Husbandry major I’ll make a stab at the oral recitation, and hope a coherent picture emerges.
Dave, or D.C. as he’s known to his Academy classmates, grew up far from the sea in the Allegheny Highlands of Northwestern Pennsylvania. His father, a World War II veteran of the North Africa, Italian, French, and German campaigns, suffered from significant mental illness and was hospitalized when David was a boy. So Dave grew up on welfare. He realized early that in order to amount to anything, he’d have to leave those Pennsylvania hills and strike out for the world beyond.
Dave joined the Navy on another bright June day, back in 1967. He saw salt water for the first time as he was walking downhill from the bus station at Annapolis to the U.S. Naval Academy. It was the glittering surface of the Chesapeake. He didn’t shine during plebe year; in fact he barely squeaked through. But I suspect it was his own experiences that there that gave him the wherewithal to write his 1983 comic novel THE RETURN OF PHILO T. MCGIFFIN, an underground legend and cult favorite that the Naval Academy bookstore still numbers among its most popular offerings today.
Dave began his active duty service in June of 1971 with his assignment to USS Bowen, FF-1079, a Knox-class 1200-psi steam powered destroyer escort out of Newport, Rhode Island – the classic beginning to a tin-can sailor’s career. A steam DE. One of the beauties of serving on small ships is that you get responsibility early. Dave was twin-toured aboard Bowen, and served in the capacities of gunnery and missile officer, navigator, first lieutenant, electronic maintenance officer, electronic warfare officer, and independent-steaming officer of the deck – although not all at once! He learned firsthand the distinct languages of boatswain’s mates, gunner’s mates, missilemen, electronic technicians, and operations specialists – or as they were still called then, radarmen. Dave earned his “water wings,” the then-new Surface Warfare pin and qualification. He deployed to the Med twice, and took part in a gruesome winter cruise north of Iceland during which his ship was ordered to find the worst storm out there and stay in it as long as she could, to test a new variable depth sonar rig. This sounds to me very much like the harrowing Arctic voyage of the fictional USS Reynolds Ryan Dave recounts in THE CIRCLE – which I understand is required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at Annapolis.
In April of 1974 Dave went from Bowen to the staff of Commander, Amphibious Squadron Eight. His official billet was as the supporting arms coordinator, the officer who coordinates the air support, gunfire support, and artillery support before and during amphibious landings. But he soon took on additional responsibilities as electronic warfare officer and the primary staff watch officer underway, qualifying as Fleet Officer of the Deck and qualifying to maneuver medium-sized task forces. He deployed again to the Med, and during the Cypriote war of 1974 stayed awake for five days and nights planning a landing to rescue American hostages and standing flag bridge watches as Task Force 61 expected attack from Greek or Turkish air at any time. Once again, it’s easy to notice the coincidence between these events and those described in his novel of the amphibious fleet, THE MED.
In the waning days of 1975 Dave went to shore duty for the first time, at Fleet Training Center, Norfolk, supervising the training program for the then-new Spruance-class destroyers. Burned out by the poor leadership of those dark days of our Navy and trying to regain an even keel after the breakup of his first marriage, he left active service in 1976, intending never to return.
For the next four years Dave survived as a broke and struggling freelance writer. That life included travel to Micronesia, riding copra schooners from island to island. (Micronesia’s a part of the world I know too, but regretfully our paths never crossed there.) It also included many late nights at the typewriter on Bute Street – a few blocks north of us – teaching himself how to write. But gradually he realized there was a Navy-sized hole in his life. He returned to duty as a selected reservist in June of 1981 and was assigned as operations officer aboard USS Charleston, LKA-113, requalifying as a fleet OOD and participating in operations in the Caribbean and Atlantic. It’s just like riding a bicycle, you never forget how.
In 1983 he went ashore again, serving for three years as the Residual Capability Assessment Officer at CINCLANT – Commander- in-Chief, Atlantic Command. In that capacity he planned for the recovery of US forces and society from the effects of a nuclear, bacteriological, or chemical attack. Thank goodness that billet never became a growth industry.
In late 1986 Dave became a Navy spouse – married to an active duty first class aviation electronics technician – and moved to Jacksonville, Florida and a billet with Readiness Command Eight as Surface Programs Officer. After a year he finagled himself out from behind the desk and aboard USS Antrim, FFG-20, a Perry-class gas-turbine-powered missile frigate, as the unit Executive Officer, participating in law enforcement/drug interdiction operations in the Caribbean, Western Atlantic convoy escort operations, and the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway cruises. Yet again, I discern echoes of his service on Antrim in his 1990 bestseller, THE GULF, set aboard a Perry-class frigate he calls Turner Van Zandt.
During this period Dave also began pulling double active duty periods, spending the second period in an annual exercise at the J-3, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon, as part of the permanent exercise cell for Operations Live Oak, a NATO exercise designed to model and practice Allied responses to Soviet access restrictions in Central Europe. That’s why he wears that gaudy Joint Chiefs pin.
Unfortunately, the Naval Reserve provides few opportunities to go to sea after 0-5. When Dave put on his silver oak leaves he moved back to Norfolk, single again, and joined Surface Warfare Development Group as an antisubmarine tactics development officer. This billet made use for the first time of his defense analysis expertise, starting his evolution from a more or less pure ship driver to something more along the lines of a defense intellectual. This billet also sent him back to sea in charge of civilian-military-contractor teams engaged in running complex multinational exercises in such places as the East Med and the Sea of Japan. It also put him in charge of writing such essential Fleet reference manuals as NWP-61, Surface Ship Tactical Employment, and the manual Expeditionary Forces Conducting Humanitarian Assistance Missions, which has governed US Navy and Marine Corps humanitarian operations since. His most exotic deployment was to the Republic of Korea Navy, where he went through not one but two back to back typhoons aboard a gun-heavy ROK CODAG (“co-dag”) frigate on patrol against North Korean submarines along the DMZ, and got well acquainted with kimchee. During Desert Storm he served in suppport of the deployed forces, using his background in chemical warfare to anticipate and model Saddam Hussein’s possible actions. He then moved up to executive officer at SWDG (“swedge”) until promoted again, whereupon he began the most recent phase of his career, at US Atlantic Command.
In the seven years he’s spent on and around the compound on Hampton Boulevard, Dave has worn many hats, most of them “purple” – that means joint, or not purely Navy. He served as chief of the Crisis Action Team during the Haitian multinational force operation known as Restore Hope. As the unit training officer, he reorganized USACOM’s Battle Staff training and rebuilt training for the entire unit. After two years, he was tapped to become the Executive Director of the General Officer Steering Committee, a position involving the care and feeding of twelve to fifteen flag and general officers, including generation, research, and development of significant innovations in reserve component policy. Major issues he worked in the capacity included Reserve Component Joint Military Professional Education, integration of the National Guard into US war plans, and CINCJFCOM training and readiness oversight over the reserve and Guard.
When I reported aboard at JFCOM, Dave was described to me by another officer as the most intellectually aggressive officer I would ever know. I met Dave shortly after his departure from this position, and I was so impressed with his credentials and obvious policy expertise that I had no choice but to create a new position especially for him: that of Senior Policy Advisor to the Deputy Chief of Staff, US Joint Forces Command. His significant active duties during this period included work on Reserve Component health care issues, air ticketing procedures for active duty travel, and most recently, a two-week deployment with the Air National Guard to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in order to study applicability of the Air Expeditionary Force Concept to US Navy operations.
Such is an outline of Dave Poyer’s career. Yet even as I give it, I’m conscious how much I’ve left out. I know he was a submarine engineer with Newport News Shipbuilding, working on Tomahawk and the Seawolf submarine. I know he’s a family man; I’ve met his lovely and accomplished wife Lenore, who is also a novelist, and their daughter, Naia (“NA-ya”), who I fully anticipate will carry on the family tradition of brilliance. I know he’s published twenty-two novels, and that his fame and influence as probably the preeminent living American novelist of the sea is even greater than his influence as an agent of innovation in the Navy. I know he’s taught or lectured at Annapolis, Flagler College, the University of Pittsburgh, the Joint Staff College, Old Dominion University, the University of North Florida, and other institutions. I know that he’s a leading voice championing positions that stand in radical opposition to that of most senior officers, and I have some doubts about some of them myself. But I don’t need to know all that in detail to testify to Dave’s impact on his unit, on its junior officers and enlisted, on the Navy, or on me.
Dave is not your “typical outstanding naval officer,” as the language of our current fitness report system has it. He is something different, something more reminescent of a criteria from two fitness report systems ago. A criteria I have always admired and regretted it was removed. The mark was for: ”THE COURAGE TO DO WHAT’S RIGHT, REGARDLESS OF THE CONSEQUENCES TO ONESELF.” I’ve always thought that appropros for operational Naval Officers and I can tell you that David Poyer epitomizes what it means. Dave has never backed away from saying or writing what he believed because it was unpopular, or because it might endanger his career. His books and articles and addresses have subjected many of the most sacred cows of the military establishment to a searching and yet not often unsympathetic criticism., aimed at reinventing our military institutions for a new and less blinkered era. Why? Because it was the right thing to do.
And it served him well because here he is standing before us as an O-6, a captain, with a long career that we will cap today with a major decoration. Speaking the truth does not necessarily mean you are out of step. If it does then Dave’s success proves that being out of step with the rest can still get you to the top – if it’s accompanied by respect, good judgment, and the drive, hard work, imagination, and reasoning power Dave has always brought to his many various jobs. If he’d kept his mouth shut more often, who knows. But then he wouldn’t have been the Dave Poyer we all know and respect. There are other words we could apply also – words like: integrity, courage, and selflessness. Unfortunately, those words seem to be out of style now, replaced all too often by conformity, game playing, and careerism. Words that will never go out of style when applied to men of Dave’s creed. Patriots who have the courage to do what’s right, regardless of the consequences to themselves.
I believe we have room in the Service for far more men and women of Dave’s character and caliber. The message I would leave you with today is not only one of praise for him; but of a challenge to the junior officers, mid-grade officers, enlisted, yes, and every one of us here today. I can think of no better encapsulation of Dave’s creed than the words he used, I notice, as the epigraph to one of his books. They’re ancient words, from the Upanishad, the ancient Sanskrit text of the Vedas:
Awake from this fever of ignorance.
Put aside this illusion of self.
Put all your trust in me
Then go forward and fight.
Dave Poyer fought. He took up the naval profession with integrity and sincerity and even, in a subdued and almost unnoticeable way, with a measure of joy. In its service he has earned what he left the hills of Pennsylvania to seek: personal excellence and the respect of others. He also discovered a world: a world he could reconstruct through his fiction into a parable of meaning. He has fought the good fight; not always with victory; but always with honor. I will miss him among us.
Thank you Dave. For all you have done for our Navy and our country.
Now if Dave will join me , we would like to formally recognize his career achievements.
Captain David Poyer Remarks
Retirement Ceremony June 9 2001
GIVEN ABOARD USS WISCONSIN AT NAUTICUS, NORFOLK
Good morning everyone; Admiral Janczak; Captains Stango and Bennett and Federov; Colonel Bill Bickel; Lenore and Naia and all my friends; officers and troops. It’s a beautiful day to gather on these old teak decks.
I guess I do date back, when I remembering holystoning decks much like these. It was in 1968, during summer cruise aboard the USS Springfield, CLG-7. We mids were taken in hand early before dawn by a boatswain’s mate who had sailed the China Station. Barefoot, with our white duck flarelegs rolled up, we sloshed seawater from canvas buckets, wet down and stoned the teak as the old cruiser rolled through the Caribbean. Sometimes we found flying fish flipping in the scuppers like live silver coins. They’d landed on the forecastle during the night, off course and doomed to be fried with our morning eggs. They were the most exotic thing a boy from rural Pennsylvania had ever eaten.
I see some few faces from my Bradford roots are with us today. As are others from Annapolis; others from active duty; more from the twenty-three years of reserve time; very many from Joint Forces Command and our associated institutions, such as Joint Staff College and CINCLANT. I’m happy to have you here on what counts as a milestone in anyone’s life: the transition to looking back on the Navy, instead of being in it. I will mention only a few of those I want to thank in particular for coming today. They include my brother Alan and his lovely wife and family; rear admiral Harry Fiske, USN, retired; Captain Keith Larson; and above all my beloved and lovely companion Lenore and the self-confident young woman my daughter Naia is fast becoming. And all the folks with whom I’ve sailed and worked; and the junior officers and enlisted with whom I have had the pleasure of working at Joint Forces Command. Your presence here, not this magnificent ship nor this magnificent harbor, nor official honors and ceremonies, makes this day worthwhile.
Retirement is traditionally the day when the departing serviceman or woman takes the floor, as it were, to pronounce a valedictory on not only his career but on what he perceives as the state of the Navy.
I am happy to speak to the first portion of this charge. By any measure, I count my career as a resounding success. It has spanned a goodly portion of this globe and more than fulfilled all my boyish dreams. From the Naval Academy I learned the essential lessons of self-discipline, craftiness, perseverance, and subordinating the self to the welfare of the team. From my first ship, and its hard, motley, and at times near-ungovernable crew I learned the deepest lessons of the seaman’s craft: unending vigilance; resourcefulness; being prepared for disaster, that disaster may never occur; and that much may, and occasionally must, be forgiven in men who know how to rig for underway replenishment in less than ten minutes. From staff duty afloat I learned the essentials of leadership by seeing it negated daily in every possible way practicable. These lessons in leadership by negative example continued at training command ashore, but again the strength of the enlisted who worked for me carried the unit through.
Aboard USS Charleston I learned that one has to forgive oneself an occasional screwup; and that whenever one goes to sea, disaster is at one’s right hand. Aboard USS Antrim I learned the art of leading reservists, most of whom didn’t want to be there, and learned that even the most daunting job was not outside my capability if I worked hard. And in the shore stations and commands since I have learned the hidden processes and policies that drive the Navy we see above water and below, and learned to muster logic and facts to support and promote the closer integration of the active and reserves into the Total Force.
Indeed, I feel something less than optimal in the fact that, as soon as one has adequately learned the lessons the Navy has to teach, as soon as one feels competent to meeet any challenge within it, it is time to leave. But my knees agree with the Navy that it’s time for me to look for a new challenge, something that doesn’t require passing a PRT every six months.
It is true that thirty-four years have passed far more quickly than I ever imagined they could. Looking back on the scared boy who raised his hand on Tecumseh Court on a hot day in June of 1967, I can still remember clearly the emotions of one who had embarked on the first minute of his naval career. I can recall the face of the surprised Marine to whom I gave a dollar – the custom being to tip the man who first saluted you after commissioning. I still recall walking down the pier to the steam-shrouded form of my first ship. The ear-ringing impact of the first time the main battery fired under my spotting – detonations the continuing echo of which I still hear when otherwise surrounded by silence. Fighting to repair topside damage as fifty-foot waves bore down on us out of the Arctic night. Pulling sea-swollen bodies out of the blue Mediterranean, and wondering if we’d be next. Staring in wonder at an Allied navy’s answer to a balky black-water system on an LST: putting a three-holer on top of the engine room escape trunk and turning it into a gigantic cesspool. Conning a fifteen-tousand-ton AKA up the Cape Fear River, and judging the turns by the amount of daylight between the captain’s ass and the bottom of his chair. Serving as a liaison officer with the French Navy, with four different kinds of wine at lunch, and with the Korean Navy, thirty-two different kinds of kimchee. No air conditioning, no showers, no computers, a world war two kind of war along the DMZ. Telling a three-star at JCS J-3 he was wrong, and observing in admiration as the captain in charge of the watch team turned dark purple. All the way to this February, rolling through Saudi in body armor as Operation Southern Watch was launching air strikes against Iraq.
It seems like such a short time; and yet, when that briefcase is opened, what depth and richness of memories come out of each file folder. And what depth and richness of friendship, camaraderie, and the memory of shared work, danger, and challenge. Truly, it has been a voyage to remember.
I remember those who made it with me; the commanding officers, many of whom are here today, who set the bar of professionalism and conduct so high for me; and who encouraged me that it was within my grasp. I remember the chiefs, those doughty men and women who tolerated me when I was junior, worked in tandem with me as a field grade officer, and who I could depend on as loyal supporters when I became a senior officer. And I remember the men and women who worked for me, the people who always have and always will be the steel core of the Navy: the enlisted sailors.
And no less must I recall to memory those who enabled me to serve, by carrying on the tasks of home and family while I was absent. In my case those whom I would like to honor are my mother, who could not be here today; but whose absence by my side at this moment I regret deeply. My father, whose service to his country in North Africa, France, and Germany were neither acknowledged nor rewarded. I would like to honor Lenore, my mysterious companion of the heart, whose shouldering of all the many burdens I have laid on her without complaint and with consummate grace leaves me wondering at my luck, blessing, and good judgment in marrying her. And I can’t leave out Naia, my beautiful daughter, whose cheerful voice on the phone and whose squeezy hugs when I come home have made my absences from her smile a little easier to bear.
To all of you, my heartfelt thanks.
And now let me speak about the state of the Navy; and in a wider sense, that of the military in which I have been privileged to serve.
In my current position as policy advisor to Rear Admiral Janczak, I have had the opportunity to gain a wider perspective on the role both of all the reserve components in the defense of the united states. At time same time, I’ve participated in the counsels of senior personnel of all the services. Though most of my fellow officers are hard-working professionals, I must caution them that many of them are following a course that may feels good in the short term, but which may ultimately prove self-defeating and dangerous to the country.
There are those – I won’t dignify them by citing names – who refer to those of us who serve in the United States military – active or reserve – as “spear-carriers for the American Empire.” An empire they describe as greedy and militaristic, imposing a hostile imperium on the nations of the earth. I reject the contentions of this argument, at least as applies to the US Navy. Comparisons are invidious; but there are many government agencies, both in DoD and without, who have contributed far more to the sum of human unhappiness than we have. No human institution has clean hands. The Navy too has made its mistakes, and then made things worse by trying to cover them up. I fault the senior leadership for this, not the rank and file. They know admitting a fault up front is the best policy. But on balance the sea-blue banner of the U.S. Navy floats as high as the best. I believe my service in it helped defeat a dangerous adversary and served as the underpinning for a more secure and more democratic world. I am proud to have served in it, and I wish it well. But I also admit to occasional anxiety about its future. And I will explain why.
I believe that the only adversary that can defeat the US armed services is themselves, in the forfeiture or estrangement of their support from the broad masses of the republic. This was the lesson of Rome: that the downfall of the republic occurred only when citizenship became separate from service; when the Romans themselves left it to others to provide defense of their polity. But when did they turn away from service in their army? When it became the maker of the Caesars.
The most worrisome development I have witnessed in the course of my career is the overt politicization of the US officer corps. When I joined the Navy the discussion of politics was strictly forbidden in the mess. Men had private convictions, but they remained private. They were not imposed on their peers or still less on their juniors. Yet in recent years this has changed. Over and over I have been privy to remarks made overtly, in the presence of junior officers and enlisted, insults, slander, and gossip distinctly political in nature and heavily weighted to the side of the conservative party. I would label these clearly, in the terminology of military discipline, as “remarks to the prejudice of good discipline.” I have countered such statements to the extent of my authority when made in my presence, but I feel like King Lear, raging against the coming of the tide. And I know junior members who feel differently do not feel as comfortable speaking up against their seniors. They may not argue back – but that doesn’t mean they agree.
A second danger is the wilful opposition of some in the military to inevitable demographic and cultural trends of change. To the extent we do not move forward with America, we will move away from America. The tendency towards political conservatism goes hand in hand with a rejection of pluralism and diversity that I find dangerous to the future of the service. Powerful figures of former authority promote this policy of rejectionism, abusing, in my view, their positions of trust.
I do not call on members of the armed forces to all become liberals. That would just as bad. I call for our senior officers to lead us in a return to the traditional non-political stance that holds the military apart from the world of politics. As it is, the military looks more and more like not an instrument of the common defense, but as just another lobbying group – like the NRA or the NEA, the Sierra Club or the Christian Coalition. And to the extent we become such, we accomplish two unintended ends; we estrange ourselves from half the body politic, and we subject ourselves to being hostages of one political party. As a priesthood apart, we can command support from all quarters commensurate with our professional dedication and skill. As a tool and client of the conservative party, we trade our birthright for a mess of pottage . . . the bowl of which seems to get smaller and smaller as it approaches our lips.
In like regard, I have little respect for those who belittle the contribution of women to our armed forces. I have served extensively with women. I had my first female CO in 1975. I have worked for them, worked with them, and had them working for me. In every situation I have found them the functional equivalent of their male running mates. It is far past time the Navy’s anachronistic mindset about who it permits to serve moved from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first. The only yardstick by which we should judge our new accessions is: have they the potential to do the job? Once that question is answered in the affirmative, our task is to so train, supply, indoctrinate, and lead them so they can they do so. No other consideration should remain in our mind, especially prejudices that belong to earlier phases of human development: nativism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. In the armed forces of the standard bearer of democracy, service must be open to all – and it is our task to make it so. This is the only way we will continue to merit the support of the American people. They have renounced discrimination. They expect no less of us.
I am nearly done. But I wanted to go one step farther, and address what I think is the reason we give way to such temptations to exclusion. Why we see others as inferior, less able, degenerate, dangerous, and ultimately dangerous. In part it is pride in what we have built. But in truth others built it, and passed it to us. It in turn will pass to others, in many cases those others we scorn, and they will build of it a new thing, stronger and more beautiful than we have dreamed. This in itself makes it easier for me to step away from the wheel today: the sure knowledge, from observation, that those who are already in the pipeline to senior rank are as ready, probably more ready, to lead us into the future than were we.
The reason human beings discriminate against others is fear. We fear those whom we perceive as different from ourselves. But fear is the other side of the coin whose face is faith. I believe the world is not directed by us. I believe it’s directed by someone wiser, and I believe that destiny is in good hands. When you believe that, it’s hard to fear other human beings, or the reverses of fate, or the imminence of age and death. It is the only answer I have ever found that is good for all the questions. For me, it was not a gift. It had to be pursued. And I too have to struggle to remember it sometimes. But it’s there.
In closing, let me say how deeply I feel the brotherhood of arms and of the sea which has bound us all together and will till the youngest here today breathes her last breath. The last bar before the open sea is not yet at hand, but it has heaved over the jagged horizon. From here the course line extends beyond human sight. It is time to relieve the watch. Let the pipe sound.
From “Why They Write”
From the July/August 1999 issue of Shipmate, the alumni magazine of the US Naval Academy. ©1999 David Poyer.
Captain David Poyer ‘71, USNR
I sometimes tell those who ask that the only worthwhile reason to write is to get even. Income and fame are illusory motivators for any artists, just as promotion and glory are illusory motivators for military officers. Neither is certain or even likely, and even if they come, as those who have them testify, they have a dark side; all too quickly they can turn to ashes in the mouth.
Getting even–which is my shorthand phrase for transforming despair into art, and attempting to at least speak out for justice in an unjust world–is a powerful motivator. But to drive us through the long apprenticeship, and the long labor of creation after that, it must be combined with something else. It has to become a duty.
The concept of duty I understand very well.
Who assigned it to me, who gave me these orders? I can only tell you what happened the summer I was four. My mother was reading to me on the back porch, and I asked her, “Where did this book come from?” Now, usually when I asked this, about clouds or butterflies, say, she’d answer, “God made it.” This time she answered, “A writer wrote it.” With that sentence in my ears I suddenly understood, even as a child, what I was and what I was here for.
And that’s the only reasonable answer to the question “why.” An artist becomes an artist not because he can, but because he must; a writer writes because telling stories is as natural and inevitable for him as the welfare of the nest is for the ant. I know that’s teleological thinking, but from where I stand I can explain it in no way that feels more truthful. Becoming a published writer, or a competent writer, is another process, true. Learning to write well enough to say what I wanted to say took me years of struggle, millions of flawed and inadequate words, and hundreds of rejections and failures; and the struggle, rejection, and failure never ends. But I honestly think one doesn’t become a writer. Like the Calvinist Elect, one either is, or is not.
As I see it, writing literature and being a naval officer–at least in the United States–have never had much overlap. If I may generalize outrageously, the official attitude toward in-service writers seems to have evolved from active antipathy, in Mahan’s time, through suspicion in Wouk’s era, to a current state of not thinking about them at all. This suits me perfectly. I would hate to belong to a service that promoted writing in any concrete way. That would inevitably lead to “official” writers and sanctions against those who did not toe some party line. The two occupations (I don’t say “professions,” because writing is not a profession–writers take no oath to serve or obey anyone) exist in separate spheres.
But in terms of reading literature, resorting to it both as play and as some more rigorous training in thought and ethical choice–this is the relationship the Navy and Marine Corps should be promoting (And the USMC actually seems to think along these lines to some extent). As I said in a speech to the Plebe Class at USNA three years ago, “It is no accident that every human society communicates its values by means of the STORY.” I told them that fiction discusses the moral challenges they will face as leaders; the challenges that would destroy them if they did not 1) recognize them and 2) make their decisions based on a broader ethical conception than that of day to day. Fiction, I said, was a way to strengthen that deeper understanding that not only helps them recognize what they must do, it lends them the strength to do it in the face of tremendous costs.
It may be that I am speaking too simplistically here, but I don’t see the point of separating the departments of history, literature, leadership, and ethics–especially at a military academy, which aims to inculcate less a habit of critical thought, than an ethos of duty. In my view they are all aspects of one and the same discipline (in both senses of the word). We may multiply the number of administrative positions by teaching them separately; but in my view, we lose a powerful mutually enhancing effect. The ancients understood the internalizing of virtuous behavior through study of the greatest works of fiction and drama. We don’t. We fragmentize everything, and reduce them all to a dry as dust set of rules, shorn of the human drama that embeds them so firmly in the memory as to become guides to action in the most difficult circumstances of life.
Advice to aspiring writers? I put all I have to offer on technique, inspiration, and marketing on my website. But the most difficult question for an aspiring writer, I think, is this: Am I really a writer? To that end I will list several symptoms: a burning sense of outrage, a monomaniacal perfectionism, a compulsion to escape into fantasy on an hourly basis, a long steeping in some form of fiction and drama, a lifetime feeling of being an outsider and an impostor, and a Moses-like ability to keep the faith through forty years in the desert. These are, in my view, significant indicators you may be condemned!
Essay from Water’s Edge magazine, July 1999. ©1999 David Poyer.
I first saw the sea at seventeen. I was carrying a cheap green suitcase down West Street, the long downhill from the Annapolis Trailways station, when I had to stop and shade my eyes. Knowing even then that it was like the first sight of a beloved, or of one’s justborn child; or, perhaps, the first glimpse of Hell.
My eyes were so accustomed to land then — to mountains that closed off half the sky, eclipsed half the sun’s light — that I could hardly make out what lay at the end of the cobblestones. Just as a kitten raised in an experimental creche of vertical stripes cannot perceive a horizontal one, my bewildered sight grappled with this blue vastness, hazy yet crisp, hovered over by gulls like flecks of foam clipped off and tossed into the air. I stared down at it for almost a minute, hardly a thought in my mind, before I bent again for my luggage and headed downhill, for my induction into the Naval Academy.
Since then I have never lived out of sight of salt water. And even when I’m not sailing, or diving, I sit at my desk attempting again and again to reproduce its overwhelming reality, in my fiction.
In the years since that first enraptured glimpse I have known the sea in many moods and shapes. I’ve seen it in the rage of a hurricane, sweeping the teak foredecks of a light cruiser. Seen it in the arctic night, lightless and viscid as used motor oil. I felt its power in mid-Atlantic, when on what had been a routine passage back from the Med up to then, a rogue sea nearly capsized my frigate. I’ve faced its rage in the cockpit of a sailboat, hundred-knot wind driving spray into my face like bits of broken glass. And in gentler moods: off Anastasia Island under sail, my beloved asleep below and the dawn rose and gold above water so polished smooth my own face stared back when I leaned over the side. I have seen it from above — and from below, staring up at that silvery mirror every diver knows, sometimes doubting whether I’d live to surface. I’ve crawled submerged wrecks in the chill night blackness that is what the abyss must be like, the realm no light ever penetrates. And at a depth so extreme it is still classified, I have entered that region too; have watched with other silent men as the pressure hull of a submarine slowly compressed around us, high yield steel groaning in torment under the enormous weight of the deep.
I am no creature of the shore. The verge holds no charms for me. As all seamen know, the land may spell refreshment and resupply, but it also means danger. Only when it drops from sight astern are we truly in our element.
As much as one person may, then, I have known the sea. But when I ask myself her meaning, she seashell-mutters in my ear with so many murmurous voices, so many memories and messages and warnings that my hand floats restless and uncertain above keys worn smooth as sea-glass.
Nevertheless, I will attempt it. To thrust myself out where no word waits for certain, only a few bits of flotsam one hopes to swim from, one to another, until some unknown shore heaves into sight. From spar to timber, then, I strike out, hoping one will bob up as another falls away.
Certainly, to me the sea at first meant freedom. To be liberated from what I then was seemed to me as desirable as the Buddhist’s nirvanic liberation from self. And this the sea gave me, or at least its seeming; a canceling of identity, a world unbounded and unconstricted by my family, my circumstances, and my previous life.
To me the sea means solitude. One goes to sea, in the last analysis, alone, or in a small company of shipmates one comes to know better, in some ways, than we know ourselves.
To me the sea means discipline; for without discipline, resolution, self-mastery, one can face neither fire, nor combat, nor the sea itself. And it also means technique. Without oar and lateen, line and spar, steam and oil, electricity and data, we cannot face the sea. We humans can be defined as the animal that builds ships. No other land creature goes to sea, nor could we without our hands and brains and our abilities to communicate, to work together, to build culture — everything that make us human.
But after all of these, the sea remains unexplained, unplumbed, unmeasured. For so far, my groping divinations derive not from the essence of the thing, but from our responses to it. And so I cast away the last drifting handhold and strike out, into the blue.
What does the sea mean, itself?
Surrounding us as the unfeeling universe surrounds each human being, the sea is first of all a huge physical phenomenon. Today’s carrier or merchant-ship sailor, especially in the engineering departments, may go for days without coming on deck. The submariner may not glimpse the smallest corner of the natural world for months. But seen or unseen, the sea is there, whispering just outside the steel walls. You have to deal with it at some level, take some attitude toward it, because it surrounds you.
But what IS it that’s there? Is it an empty structure, a metaphor, a symbol, or something else?
For we are not merely physical creatures; we also exist in the realm of the metaphorical, and beyond that, in the domain of the divine. To us who go to her again and again, the sea becomes more than a manifestation of physical reality. In the Odyssey, the stormy ocean is literally divine: Poseidon is personally angry at Odysseus. If you’re a mystic, as I am, the sea takes on another role, one more difficult to define, more than symbol, less than god, but with a yearning and a significance I suspect most sailors feel. As witness the conversation on the bridge between Dan Lenson and Alan Evlin in The Circle, probably the best sea novel I’ve managed yet, as the Arctic Ocean is tearing the old Reynolds Ryan apart one night north of the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. Gap:
“So what did you mean, about the sea?”
“About the sea?”
“One night — before the storm — remember, we were having a kind of philosophical discussion. You told me to look out at the sea, and think about it.”
“Oh. I remember now. And did you?”
The grin felt strange on his face. He’d wanted to ask Evlin this for a long time. “I’ve done a lot of looking, but I’ve been too scared to think.”
A messman clattered down bread, peanut butter and jelly, butter in plastic tubs, sugar cookies. “Soup in the galley. Drink it out of cups, you want some.”
“Thank you,” said Evlin.
“Anyway, what did you mean?”
“I’d rather have you tell me what you thought I meant.”
Dan said slowly, “If I get you right — you were comparing our individual lives to the waves. Not as separate, but a . . . conceptual subset, like in Boolean algebra.” He paused, but Evlin kept silently impastoing bread with peanut butter. “And . . . so that even though each wave looks different from the rest, and it seems sometimes they die and the sea’s calm, really nothing’s created, and nothing dies . . . it’s just the sea, always changing, but always still the same.”
The ops officer took a bite. “Chunky. I prefer smooth.”
“And that our existence is like that,” Dan said. He felt silly, but at the same time very clear, as if this was what he was supposed to be talking about right now, right here, in this crowded, careening space, with this man.
“I never said that. Nothing is like anything else. Language forces us to think in similes. It works when you’re discussing things in terms of other things. But when you’re talking about areas outside everyday experience — particle physics, for example — you can’t use words at all, not and have it mean anything corresponding to reality.”
“But it makes sense, somehow. It’s true in terms of matter and energy. They don’t vanish. They just change forms.”
“But are the spiritual and physical worlds separate? The medieval Christians thought all of Nature was a book revealing the intent of God.”
Dan said slowly, keeping his voice below the hum of other voices, “But what good does it do you to believe that, Al?”
“What good. Well, how would people act if they really thought everyone else was part of himself? That his neighbor’s not only like him, the Golden Rule, but actually another, separate self, looking out through other eyes?”
“It would make you a lot more tolerant.” He thought about it. “And maybe, kinder.”
“And if you believed you’d be back?”
“It would make you care more about a lot of things, stuff you just shrug about now, because you figure it’ll be somebody else’s problem.”
“It would change the world,” Evlin said.
But if you’re not a mystic, or religious, if you don’t believe in God at all, then the sea becomes what Crane sees it as in “The Open Boat” — as a divine absence, a divine uncaring; or as Conrad called it, “the immense indifference of things.” He (J.C.) says of the sea, it has “no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory…nothing can touch the bitterness of its heart.”
This points to another way those who have gone to her long enough come to feel about her. The sea has no heart, no mercy, no shame, and no misgiving. She will receive your body with the same equanimity as she receives a bullet, a stone, or a ship. Afterward her face will smile as serenely in the tropic moonlight as it has for a billion years; and the only tears she will shed will the salt and bitter drops that fly from each cresting wave. For the sea is made of tears, and blood, and semen; as we are made of the sea; we are bubbles on her restless surface; and death, to her, is only the return of a wandering child into her eternal arms.
All these are true. Terror, and awe; freedom, and solitude, and discipline; these all bob and float about on the surface of my feelings about the immense and faithless goddess whose devotee I have become, whose gray-green caste-mark I have myself thumbed upon my forehead. But words have no end, and I have no final answer. In the end my response to the sea is the same as my response to life itself. Not to death; but to the physical and mental challenge of this singular and single ocean, no matter how many channels and seas we divide it into, that touches both the beginning and the end of our voyage.
More than halfway across that ocean, now, I look to the bar of an oncoming storm. The sea sighs in gathering darkness.
Nothing I write on the water will survive. No word I speak will endure through the coming hurricane. But clinging to the rail, I stare ahead. The course is set, and so far, the captain, mysterious and unseen as he removes himself from our sight, has earned my trust.
“Oil and Ink”
From March 27, 1999 Bradford Era
While reading David Poyer’s latest novel, “Thunder on the Mountain,” one might have difficulty deciding whether that dark liquid flowing through the author’s veins is ink or oil.
Maybe there’s some of both. Consider this revelation from an interview between Poyer and on-line bookseller Arnazon.com. “I kept a bottle of Bradford Sand crude oil on my desk and inhaled each morning before I began to write,” Poyer said. “That smell of the oil country was the scent of my youth, the smell my grandfather brought home on his clothes from Kendall Oil,” said Poyer, who grew up in Bradford. “The book is my tribute to him and to all the workers and common people I write about in the Hemlock books,” Poyer said, adding this “is the kind of novel I have been trying to write since I began the Hemlock County series 14 years ago.”
Poyer’s memories of his youth in Bradford are far from sunny. At the time, he felt people looked down on him and his family. His father returned from World War II with a severe case of shell shock, and the stigma of welfare stung Poyer, who eagerly joined the Navy after graduating from Bradford High School in 1967. In comparing the fictional Hemlock County to McKean County, Poyer said, “Hemlock County is a much darker place. It’s not McKean County, but there are many strong similarities.”
Some of those similarities are traced in words and pictures in today’s third section of The Bradford Era.
“At the Heart of History”
by Jim Buck, Era Reporter
David Poyer’s latest novel, “Thunder on the Mountain,” has been getting good reviews, even from people who don’t recognize that the cold, hard, oil-covered terrain he writes about is a fictionalized version of McKean County.
This novel, the fourth in a series dealing with events in Hemlock County, Pa., transports readers into the middle of a refinery strike in the winter of 1936. Those familiar with the previous books in the Hemlock County series will recognize a number of characters in “Thunder on the Mountain” – W.T. Halvorsen, a 20-year-old well shooter and amateur boxer; Jennie Washko, Halvorsen’s sweetheart; and Dan Thunner, the owner of Thunder Oil and the richest man in Petroleum City.
To bring these chapters alive, Poyer sought out several local residents who could tell him first hand what life was like in this area during the 1930s.
One of those people was Tommy Darcy Cardamone.
Walking into Cardamone’s barber shop on Mechanic Street is like stepping into a time machine. The walls are covered with pictures showing young men in uniform prepared to enter the fighting in World War II, a variety of boxers from the 1930s including Cardamone himself, and a few shots taken inside the Silver Slipper, the nightclub Cardamone ran in the ’40s.
“Anybody who knows Tommy Darcy knows he had a great deal of input into the book,” Poyer said.
Poyer also talked with John Cummiskey, a walking encyclopedia of information about professional and amateur boxing in this area. It’s no coincidence then that the novel contains a character named Master John Cummiskey, who’s introduced to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as “the boy who swallowed the harmonica.”
For in-depth knowledge of the oil industry, Poyer picked the brain of Jim Bryner, president of the Penn Brad Oil Museum.
In the first chapter of the book, Poyer describes the way Halvorsen goes about his job as a well shooter for the “Bryner Torpedo Co.” The ease with which Poyer writes about this arcane occupation and about other aspects of the oil industry won praise from reviewers.
Poyer had other sources as well.
For the history of the labor movement during the 1930s, Poyer said he read through the transcripts of the LaFolette Commission hearings, during which congressmen listened to testimony about the illegal methods companies were using to break strikes and crush unions.
Among the early advocates of union organization was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who built her reputation by organizing the workers at several textile mills in the South.
Doris Gurley Golden, one of the central characters in “Thunder on the Mountain,”is a composite character, combining aspects of Flynn and an organizer named Fanny Sellins, who was killed by company thugs during a strike in Monessen, Poyer said.
One of the biggest challenges Poyer faced was trying to recapture the idioms and other figures of speech that would give an authentic flavor to the dialogue in the book.
To get the dialogue right, Poyer said he turned to old newspapers from the ’30s and read the comic pages, where characters spoke using everyday speech patterns.
He also consulted the humor section of vintage issues of the Pennsylvania National Guard Magazine as well as one or two living people who seemed to have total recall of things that were said in the 1930s.
If it’s beginning to sound like Poyer has spent years researching “Thunder on the Mountain,” that’s because he did.
Back in 1981, when Poyer began writing “The Dead of Winter” – the first in the Hemlock County series – he knew he would eventually trace the lives of his main characters back to the 1930s.
Ever since then he’s been filling notebooks with information he could use for the book.
In fact, Poyer said his desire to write about that period in history stems from his childhood, when he would listen to his grandmother talking with her friends about what it took to make ends meet during the Great Depression.
Although the audience for the books in the Hemlock County series is smaller than for books in the other two series he writes (one centered on the exploits of a U.S. Navy man and the other on an underwater salvage operator), Poyer said he feels compelled to extend the series.
“I have nursed this series along,” Poyer said. “This is an area I care about and people I care about. It makes me appreciate the audience I have even more.”
“I wish I could have done even better for you,” Poyer told an audience following a recent reading at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.
Copies of “Thunder on the Mountain” can be purchased at Archer’s; Poppy’s Video, Music, & Books; and Tina’s Cards send Gifts.
Other titles in the Hemlock County series – “The Dead of Winter,” “Winter in the Heart,” and “As the Wolf Loves Winter” – are available from local libraries and the Bradford Landmark Society as well as the above-mentioned book stores.
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