Interview with a Vigilante: Robert Bidinotto – Author of HUNTER
Few writers come to the indie world of publishing with the credits of Robert Bidinotto, author of the thriller HUNTER. His non-fiction analysis of our criminal justice system won him numerous awards, and as a staff writer for Reader’s Digest, his work even influenced the 1988 Presidential election.* Top that.
In HUNTER, a vigilante killer leaves bodies in inconvenient places around town, while journalist Dylan Hunter documents the judicial system failures that allowed those violent criminals back on the street. His pseudonym and secrets keep him safe from those he writes about, but the beautiful CIA investigator, Annie Woods, can’t be sure he’s worthy of her trust. And she’s got secrets of her own. As Dylan tries to awaken the public to the threat of prisoner furloughs, Annie tracks an assassin. But someone wants both of them dead.
Bidinotto combines the elements of spy thriller, romantic suspense, and vigilante justice into an intelligent work of action. Without further ado, please welcome author and fellow piasano Robert Bidinotto :
(waits for applause to die down)
ME: Given your back ground, one might have expected you to write true-crime stories, à la Truman Capote or Norman Mailer, instead of novels. What appealed to you about writing a novel
ROBERT: Actually, Helen, I began my journalistic career by writing true-crime stories in the late 1980s. Over a period of about a half-dozen years, I produced a series of investigative pieces for Reader’s Digest on the outrageous leniency toward criminals that is rampant in the so-called criminal justice system.
The series began with a now-famous piece titled “Getting Away With Murder” in the July 1988 issue. That one exposed the then-existing prison policy in Massachusetts of granting unsupervised weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers who, supposedly, were serving sentences of “life without the possibility of parole.” I subsequently wrote follow-up articles about laws that kept criminal records secret from the public; about pathetically lax sentencing and monitoring of sex criminals; about “revolving-door justice”; about probationary sentencing of violent career criminals; and much more. I later wrote a compendium of horror stories, Freed to Kill, that surveyed the carnage caused by such policies.
I drew upon all of this background in writing HUNTER, so that I could dramatize these issues for a much wider audience. However, while HUNTER is inspired by those past experiences and research, the fact is that I’ve always yearned to write fiction. But Life and self-doubt always somehow got in the way. Entering my sixties, I finally decided that I could no longer live with myself if I didn’t cross “write a novel” off my Bucket List. I gave myself a deadline of my 62nd birthday to finish HUNTER. And I did…with just one hour to spare.
ME: Do you employ the same investigative methods for fiction that you use for non-fiction? In what ways do your research techniques differ?
ROBERT: True-crime writing requires that I dig deeply into box loads of official documents and court transcripts; that I interview a multitude of experts, crime victims, policymakers, public officials, and advocates; that I vigorously fact-check every detail of a piece before its publication.
Writing crime fiction is different, because storytelling isn’t journalism. Different standards apply. Because you are creating a fantasy, you do research mainly to give your story plausibility—the illusion of reality—not strictly factual accuracy. Now, there are certain details you have to get right, if they are publicly known facts. For example, the technical capabilities of specifically identified guns and vehicles, or the locations of actual streets and buildings, or the physical appearances of real places and things.
ME: Has Luna asked for a cut of the royalties, say, in tuna?
ROBERT: For those who don’t know, Luna is our pet cat, whom I conscripted to play a supporting role in HUNTER, as pet to the hero. In fact, she’s the only character in the novel drawn from real life.
Well, as you might imagine, Helen, fame has created a spoiled prima donna. Since the book was published, Luna’s twice-per-day ritual of treats has become a constant imposition on us, as she waits with an impatient frown at the entrance to our kitchen, issuing bellicose demands for ever more. I’ve warned her that if she keeps it up, I may kill her off in a future novel. But I think she knows an empty bluff when she hears one.
ME: The term vigilante doesn’t always elicit positive connotations. What’s your definition?
ROBERT: Vigilantes are beloved folk heroes in stories and fables. In novels and films, they serve the role of restoring justice when there’s a breakdown or corruption of official institutions of the law. The vigilante of fiction typically is depicted as a romantic, idealized figure: a lone representative of morality in a chaotic world. Think of such icons as the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and the Lone Ranger—or of private detectives and adventurers such as Mike Hammer, Travis McGee, Spenser, Elvis Cole, and Jack Reacher. There are many, many more; they’re the staples of detective and thriller fiction.
So, the vigilantism in HUNTER is nothing new. However, I want to be clear about one thing. The vigilantism depicted in the novel is intended solely as a fictional device to highlight and dramatize the absence of justice in our current legal system. Readers will see that I kept the vigilante acts in the novel within clear moral boundary lines. A specific code of honor governs all the illegal actions and vigilante killings. Only murderers are actually killed; public officials, no matter how odious, are not targeted with violence, but only with theatrical acts of “poetic justice.” And no actions are undertaken that threaten harm to innocents.
In the real world, by contrast, vigilantism would never remain subject to such honorable constraints. It would degenerate into a violent competition of reprisals and vendettas, unlimited by any moral or legal principle.
So, I am not literally advocating vigilantism as an appropriate way for people to deal with injustices. I hope that by calling public attention to the failures of our legal system, HUNTER will help foster reforms of that system, instead.
ME: As a Sicilian, I can say, vendettas never end well. In addition to Dylan Hunter, we follow CIA investigator Annie Woods. How did you study the alphabet agencies for your portrayal of her, the FBI characters, and their operations?
ROBERT: I read a great many books about the CIA and spycraft, and studied everything I could find online, too. I also interviewed some “insiders” in the intelligence community. I enlisted a few of them as “beta readers” before publication, just to make sure that I didn’t screw things up too badly.
ME: Tell us one thing about Robert Bidinotto that we aren’t likely to find out on the internet?
ROBERT: I love to sing the old standards, such as Cole Porter songs, as they were performed by Sinatra. (You’ll find a passing nod to Cole and Frank in a scene in HUNTER.) In fact, I’ve serenaded my wife on several public occasions, including our wedding reception. So, if I weren’t a writer, Helen, I might have become a lounge lizard!
ME: No worries, your wife rescued you from that fate. But seriously, do they really have bocce ball and horseshoes in maximum security prisons?
ROBERT: It was Norfolk Prison in Massachusetts, a medium security joint; and you’re damned right, they do. Or at least they did, some years ago, when I wrote a Reader’s Digest piece titled “Must Our Prisons Be Resorts?” In HUNTER, the memo on the prison wall detailing those activities is a verbatim transcript of an actual memo that a prison guard at Norfolk sneaked out and sent to me.
Sometimes I think that the real reason they put walls around prisons isn’t to keep the prisoners inside; it’s to keep taxpayers from seeing how their tax dollars are being lavishly wasted on entertainment and amenities for killers, thieves, and sexual predators.
ME: Hunter has done well out of the gate. Anything you plan to do differently for your next book? Words of warning or wisdom for those to follow?
ROBERT: To do differently: Well, I might try to outline a bit less and let my writing flow more organically. However, it’s my nature to plot and plan obsessively, and to edit as I proceed. I don’t know if I can break those habits, or even if I want to. They worked for me the first time. But I’d like to see if I can write the next Dylan Hunter adventure much faster.
Words of warning: If you plan to self-publish a print edition of your book, look for ways to reduce the page count, in order to keep the book’s cost down. I was extravagant with “white space” in the print edition of HUNTER. While it makes for easy reading, I did not realize that it increased the page count and the price significantly. And that prevented me from being able to distribute it in bookstores. Dumb.
Words of advice: Honor your craft.
Many quickie, self-published books reveal little concern by their authors for learning or applying the fundamental principles of good storytelling—or, for that matter, even the basic rules of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting. Then they wonder why their books don’t sell, no matter what marketing tricks they try.
As you know, Helen, writing well is hard work. It takes enormous effort and craftsmanship to conjure a spell for your reader, one so vivid that he can completely lose himself in your story and stay lost in there till the last page. That’s what readers praise when they describe a book as “a real page-turner” or “gripping” or “spell-binding.”
But egregious errors, logical lapses, lame clichés, limp descriptions and dialogue, and general sloppiness break that magical spell. They jar your reader away from your imaginary world, propelling him right back into the mundane here-and-now world.
That’s the definition of “failure” for a fiction author.
If you really want to succeed as an author, then, your primary focus shouldn’t be marketing. It should be on learning how to tell a good story. You can’t successfully market a bad product. Craftsmanship is a matter of practical necessity. But it’s also a matter of self-respect.
Honor your craft.
ME: What can we expect for Hunter’s next adventure?
ROBERT: My biggest challenge in future stories will be to meet reader expectations. I think fans of HUNTER really enjoyed the deviousness and complexities of the plot—especially the mystery behind the hero’s history, identity, and motives, and how that backstory connected with his activities in the story’s “present.”
That mystery now has been revealed and resolved for readers. So, to keep things interesting in future installments, I must invent new complications for the hero and heroine. Readers will expect all the elements that made the first novel special for them: controversial themes; passionate, conflicted relationships; devious, hidden motives; grave jeopardy to beloved characters; wild, violent action scenes; and gripping suspense.
Most of all, they’ll want more of the book’s distinctive hero: an intellectual tough guy—a crusading, “lone wolf” vigilante who battles not just thugs and terrorists, but also the powerful officials and influential enablers who unleash them.
It will be a lot of fun for me to confront that challenge once again.
ME: Indeed it will, Robert. Thanks for joining me here today. For more information:
You can contactRobert Bidinotto online here:
* Search: Willie Horton