Inside the literary mind of Robert Ludlum
November 25, 2017
To me, storytelling is a craft. Then if you’re lucky, it becomes an art form.
Robert Ludlum knew he should be happy and had every right to be happy, but he wasn’t. There was a hole in his life, and he was determined to fill it with words if nothing else.
He was a successful actor, had done a lot of voice-over work for TV commercials, and, for a decade, had even produced original theater on Broadways. But he grew bored and no doubt frustrated with the pressures and labor problems that weighed heavily on the theatrical industry and decided to walk away from it all.
Fool that he was, Robert Ludlum wanted to write.
He was forty years old at the time.
“Don’t do it,” New Jersey reporter Gene Murphy told him.
Murphy knew. He already had a desk full of rejection slips.
“It’s very lonely and very competitive work,” Murphy told him. “You’ve got a good thing here in the theater. Don’t do it.”
The reporter’s warning fell on deaf ears. Ludlum wrote a humorous book about those odd, unusual, and funny things that happen when actors meet the general public. He named it: Broadway Goes to Suburbia.
Robert Ludlum walked out of the room laughing. He thought about running. And he wondered if Gene Murphy had been right.
Then came The Osterman Weekend, and Ludlum was well on his way to developing a formula for the modern thriller. It has been said that he popularized two notions that were considered heresy. He wrote of American and Soviet Intelligence operatives working together and the CIA conducting illegal operations on American soil. Once, such thoughts were regarded as the stuff of pure fiction. Now they are accepted as fact. His was a disconcerting world of global corporation, shadowy military forces, and secret government organizations caught in a nightmare of conspiracies against the lives and decency of mankind.
Ludlum was never able to extricate himself from the lessons he learned on stage, those that underscored his ability to portray energy and escapism and action in his novels. An audience liked the formula in a play. Readers, he believed, would like it in novels as well. As Ludlum said, “I equate suspense and good theater in a very similar way. I think it’s all suspense and what-happens-next. From that point of view, I guess I am theatrical.” As a theater person, he knew what held an audience and what didn’t. He said, “Life is extremely complicated. I try as best I can to enter the realm of nuances of human behavior.”
When New York Times book critic John Leonard reviewed one of his thrillers, he wrote: “I sprained my wrist turning his pages.” Ludlum was a genius at creating narrative velocity. His books were jump-started on the first page, then gradually picked up speed until it was difficult or the reader to pause long enough to take a breath. He was recognized as the king of high-speech techno-thrillers.
Ludlum once said, “It’s the hardest thing in the world to write the second book. The first one was easy. We’ve all got a story to tell. But writing the second book, that’s the difference between a professional and not a professional.”
He wrote short sentences that ricocheted off the page like the staccato of runaway machinegun fire. He was, his critics said, far too melodramatic. His stories focused on a man or perhaps a small group of individuals fighting against all odds to battle powerful adversaries who had the ability to use political and economic might in ways too frightening to even imagine.
In an interview with Hal Gieseking for his book, Reinvent Yourself, Ludlum provided these insights into his writing techniques.
Where did he find his ideas?
I love to observe people. I have always been interested in people who have decided to leave one lifestyle for another. On St. Thomas, I met a man named John who used to be a very successful ad man in New York. He threw it all away to follow a new dream – running a charter boat in the Caribbean. He went to a patrol school run by the Coast Guard in St. Thomas. He supported himself by becoming a disk jockey on a local radio station for $100 a week. Now he has his own charter boat business and is considered one of the more effective people on the island. A complete life change. Later I used that fact in The Bourne Identity. When one of my characters wanted to get away, he joined the boat people in the Caribbean.
What makes your locations so authentic?
My wife and I love to travel the world. And whenever possible, we take our kids and their wives with us. On a trip to Greece, they helped me gather restaurant menus, theater programs, ticket stub, tour brochures. And I take a lot of really bad pictures. But I put all this in a big scrapbook. The scrapbook brings memories back to life and helps make my writing more credible.
What is the biggest mistake made by beginning writers?
I get annoyed when a self-indulgent writer just shows off when he knows he doesn’t really tell a story. To me, storytelling is a craft. Then if you’re lucky, it becomes an art form. But first, it’s got to be a craft. You’ve got to have a beginning, middle, and end. And I have sort of applied the theatrical principles to writing. Throw the story in the air and see what’s going to happen.
For Robert Ludlum, life has indeed been his most endearing mentor.
He published his first book. And the world suddenly went dark.
He was not able to remember anything for twelve hours. It was as though he no longer existed. No name. No memory. No past.
Ludlum’s affliction with temporary amnesia formed the backdrop for his most successful thrillers in print and on the screen: The Bourne Trilogy. He knew exactly what and how Jason Bourne must be feeling. Robert Ludlum had lived in the black of the shadows before.
When he left us, I thought immediately, “How many wonderful stories did he take with him? Others may write the Ludlum stories, but they don’t have the Ludlum touch.”