New Novel Set in the Great Smoky Mountains: The Famous Matt Clark interview on “Tail of the Dragon” with Rich Hoffman
On Sunday May 6, 2012 I spent some time with Matt Clark of the Clarkcast Radio Network to talk about my new novel Tail of the Dragon which is about to hit book stores everywhere. Matt had read an early version of the novel before I signed with my publisher and enjoyed it so much he called me personally to say just how much he loved the story prompting us to discuss it well in advance of its release to the public. When the book was close to release, we spoke about doing the interview heard and seen below as it aired on Talk 1600 WAAM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Check it out!
On a special note, during the interview, I say “WE” quite a bit. This is in reference to either my wife who has been on many adventures with me and has been a big part of the writing process–or its in reference to my publisher and the team who has worked with me to bring this book to life. Its a process that involves a lot of people, so saying “WE” seemed appropriate.
Even though Matt and I spoke about a lot of topics that make Tail of the Dragon a unique and timely novel, where the events of this intense story are paralleling the tensions of our current nation, a lot of what we wanted to discuss didn’t make it into our interview. If it had, our talk might have gone on for hours. So to further elaborate the content of the Tail of the Dragon I have a longer version of the interview to enjoy while the final stages of production are completed prior to the release of the book in The United States and International markets.
Q: What is your new book Tail of the Dragon all about?
A: I set out to write the book I’ve wanted to see written for a number of years, an action packed good ol’ car chase that was filled with excitement. They used to make lots of those films in Hollywood years ago, and of late, even with the strong video game market from the Need for Speed series and the popularity of the Fast and Furious films, studios have been shy about tackling those types of projects.
When I was growing up it was films like Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazzard that dominated movie and TV sets and I always felt that those types of entertainment mediums were healthy for American culture since questioning the merit of the law is important to our checks and balances as a society. And for me, it is kind of sad that one of the greatest car chase films of all time is The Blues Brothers which was made back in the 70’s. So I set out to write a story to contribute to this starving deficiency, and I purposely set out to write the most exciting, and intense car chase story in the history of car chase stories. If early readings of the book are any indication, I’d say that mission was accomplished.
Q: After reading this novel it seems that there is more to it than just a car chase. These characters are in deep peril. The politics of the novel seem to be a very direct commentary to real life.
A: I think of this story as a modern pirate story, where the main character Rick Stevens has been hired as a privateer much the way England and France hired privateers to harass the Spanish Main during the 17th century leading to the golden age of piracy. This gave rise to the great privateer/pirate called Henry Morgan. In a way I see Rick Stevens as the modern counterpart to that historic character. Stevens has been hired by political interests to harass the Highway Patrol in Tennessee for political reasons—to prevent a presidential run to the White House of the current Tennessee governor. So in that respect, there is a contemporary storyline.
Q: But you don’t deal with party politics, you keep it neutral.
A: That’s right. I make no mention of Republicans or Democrats because to me they are all kind of the same thing. If there is a political meaning to be taken from this particular story it’s that the political system is broken beyond repair and a small number of characters are intent to correct that system with a rebellious upheaval which causes this grand car chase.
Q: Isn’t it a hot dog that starts all this in motion?
A: Yes, Rick Stevens accepts the bet of a hot dog in a race that triggers off the chain reaction of events that lead to the next civil war in America. This time the battle lines are drawn between those who want government to continue to expand, and those who want to see it withdrawal from their lives. But yes, the whole thing starts over a bet for a simple hot dog.
Q: But this isn’t just a tough guy car chase; you have romance in it too.
A: Yes, Rick Stevens and his wife are on a trip to Gatlinburg to shake the dust off their marriage, which is a very popular destination for that kind of thing, and while there Rick wants to run his new motorcycle on the Tail of the Dragon which is a road on the western frontier of the Great Smoky Mountains that has 318 curves in just 11 miles. It’s considered one of the most extraordinary roads in the world, so it’s a very popular destination for high performance bikers and automobiles. In the novel this is the destination for this middle-aged couple as they reconnect romantically now that their oldest son is off and married.
Q: Ok, so that brings up the question, how much of this story is real? How much of Rich Hoffman is there in Rick Stevens?
A: There’s a bit there, especially in the first couple of chapters where the couple is traveling on their way to The Dragon for the first time. I’d say those chapters are a bit autobiographical. When my wife and I traveled to the actual Dragon I was amazed by the culture that was there. There was a real hunger for personal freedom that I found refreshing so I knew I had to make my next book about that extraordinary place. That same summer my wife and I traveled over 10,000 miles on our motorcycle as I started writing this book so that I could get my head into the mind of a character like Rick Stevens. We traveled from the shores of Lake Erie to the tip of Key West by motorcycle and many places in between. On those trips this story was born in every aspect. When you travel by motorcycle and speak with other motorcyclists at gas pumps and rest stops there is a respect that is undeniable. Where Rick Stevens and I part ways is that Rick does not have the same outlets as I do. I write, and read a lot, but Rick invests his time in cars and engines and doesn’t have mechanisms to relieve the stresses he feels in his life. I would never snap the way Rick Stevens does, but there is a part of me that really understands his reasons and motives for the behavior that becomes the greatest car chase in human history.
Q: So you and your wife rode 10,000 miles on a motorcycle all over The United States to research this novel?
A: Yes, but our riding stayed on the eastern side of the Mississippi River because most of the traveling was on long weekend trips that were close to our hometown of Cincinnati. But yes, our trips to The Dragon being some of the most interesting experiences I have had on a motorcycle. While on the road you meet a lot of people who want pretty much the same thing that you do, a sense of freedom, which is the appeal of traveling by motorcycle, and are the reason that motorcyclists wave to each other when they pass on the road.
The character of Rick Stevens is such a freedom loving person and to understand him correctly I found that he came to life for me somewhere between the Smoky Mountains and Key Largo, Florida. In fact, my wife and I stopped by a McDonalds in between Key Largo and Key West after several days on the road with our tent and a weeks worth of supplies stacked our motorcycle luggage rack and there was a profound sense of freedom that I felt at that moment that I used to create the character of Rick Stevens. I had to ask the question, what if a person lived like this every day? What would happen if a man who had such a profound sense of freedom and a determination to stay that way found himself pulled into a political whirlpool involving a presidential run to the White House. The result is this novel, Tail of the Dragon.
Q: Didn’t you have a lot of trouble with the law yourself, so isn’t there more of Rick Stevens in you than you’re admitting?
A: It’s true I grew up in trouble with the law quite a bit. I’ve received about every type of speeding ticket, and reckless operation citation a person can get, and I’ve been to court more times than I can even remember. Like Rick Stevens I had lost my driver’s license under state mandated suspension till my late 20’s. I do love speed, which is very obvious by the pace of this novel. But after I started raising a family and was driving family type cars, I drove just as fast–I never did slow down—even today. But I stopped getting tickets because the police do pull over a certain kind of driver, and certain types of cars. This is what confirmed my suspicions that the law was crooked in selective enforcement, and that traffic violations have nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with “revenue enhancement,” which is one of the central themes of this novel.
But Rick Stevens unlike me expects the world to be fair and he refuses to budge off the line of what is right and wrong. He’s a very determined character who expects logic in the law, and when he doesn’t get it—watch out.
Q: That brings us to another compelling character in Tail of the Dragon. We’ve talked about motorcycles, but this isn’t a motorcycle chase with the police, it’s a car chase. The car in this novel is unlike anything ever created.
A: That it is. In the story Rick Stevens has been trying to save up the money to fix up an old 1977 Firebird he has from his youth, but he could never come up with the money to restore it, since he was raising a family. So the car was in the garage collecting dust waiting for Rick to come up with the money. He gets it from a political enemy of the Governor of Tennessee who gives him $20 million to fix up his old car and turn it into the supercar that’s in the book.
Q: And it truly is a supercar.
A: Well, it had to be. Again, I think of it as the ultimate pirate ship for the ultimate pirate. Stevens takes the $20 million dollars and converts his old Firebird into an armored tank that can travel at speeds of over 200 MPH, which would be needed if he was going to pick a fight with the state of Tennessee and their highway patrol. He knew that the police would use lethal force to stop him once the chase got started so he put so many gadgets into the car that it would make James Bond jealous.
As a kid I always loved the car in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, where the car could do just about anything, including fly, so in that spirit the old Firebird in Tail of the Dragon is a tribute to those great cars designed by Ian Flemming in his literary works that became the early James Bond films and set a level of expectation that hasn’t been matched. So with this story, I wanted to top it. I kept imagining how cool the Hot Wheel car of this Firebird would be in the toy aisle for a 10 year-old-boy, and I designed the car to appeal to all the children under 12 and adults over 30 who have old cars in their garages that they are trying to restore for all the reasons that Rick is, and are finding that money is hard to come by. This is the kind of story that fathers can share with their children in equal joy because both young and old love a cool car that is a strong character of its own.
Q: But what’s most unique about this car is that it’s the first hot rod of its kind that’s “environmentally friendly.” It doesn’t run off fossil fuel, but off of “vegetable oil.” Is that right?
A: Yes, the car has had a Lemans race car engine installed that is based on real technology from Puguet where they have had great success in developing diesel racing engines that can run on biodiesel. They have one engine that they currently use that produces 700 HP, so that gave me the idea to use that technology to solve a unique problem that always comes up in car chase stories—how do the bandits get gas, because in long, involved, and violent car chases, the last option of the police would be to shut down all the fuel stations along the chase route to starve the bandits of gas? So if a bandit/runaway pirate like Rick Stevens wishes to survive a massive car chase, he has to solve the problem of how he can refuel, otherwise he will simply run out of gas and he’d be gunned down with no place to go.
One thing that is very common, especially in the American South are lots of free-standing fast food restaurants that have plenty of waste veggie oil they keep in large containers behind their buildings. Rick hopes that by resurrecting his beloved car to a diesel engine power plant with a vegetable oil conversion kit, which is actually technologically feasible, then he can solve his refueling problems no matter what the police do, because law enforcement won’t be able to deny him of that source of fuel while on the run.
Q: So this is the first car chase in history that is “environmentally friendly.”
A: You could say that. Veggie oil is an alternative fuel that makes no sense to me why we don’t explore it as an alternative to diesel fuel. If I were a truck driver in America, I’d be pretty upset by the cost of diesel fuel, and I’d be looking for alternatives. So I wanted to make that technology known to a wider audience by making it a central story point in this novel, so people could learn that there are options to traditional fossil fuel available right now. Using those alternative fuel sources will help drive costs down by relieving demand and creating a more competitive market in the fuel processing businesses. So it only makes sense as an option that I think people should be utilizing. In Tail of the Dragon Rick Stevens uses veggie fuel to stay one step ahead of the law.
Q: I don’t want to give anything away, but I will have to say that I didn’t know how this story would end. It’s intense right up to the very last paragraph and I couldn’t put it down, especially the last 80 pages. There was just one cliffhanger after another and the story didn’t stop. There were action scenes that were just incredible, that’s the only way I know to describe them.
A: Well, I’m glad to hear it, because that was my intention. When I was a kid I played with a lot of toy cars, and I imagined every imaginable chase sequence possible by the human mind, so when I sat down to write Tail of the Dragon, I was able to go back and relive those childhood moments with the wisdom and reality of being an adult that has spent over 20 years traveling at a high rate of speed. So the car chase in this novel is a culmination of 44 years of playing on my behalf with the idea of the car chases that are in it. I wrote the scenes the way I’ve always wanted to see them, but so far every other story ever made has fallen short in some way.
I’ve read a lot of books, and car chases don’t typically play out well in literature, but as a tribute to my favorite car chases from movies, I wanted to apply one to literature as a mechanism to advance a very intense plot. So I thought of the great car chase stories like Road Warrior, Thunder Road, Vantage Point, Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper and many others and wanted to bring them into the modern world of advanced police tactics and superior technology. I didn’t want the police to be stumbling buffoons like they are typically in the old 70’s car chases, but worthy adversaries, which greatly increased the level of tension and made this story one of a kind. I’m very proud of what ended up on the printed page and the images it congers up in the mind.
Q: And that brings us to the point of the book. Without giving anything away, what is the point, because to me this novel works on many different levels? I mean you can blast through this novel in one sitting, or over a weekend. And you can read it several times and still take away more on the third and fourth reading. There are messages in it that seem to resonate to a much deeper philosophical yearning.
A: For me the point of the book is to get to the final pages, literally the last four pages. All the billions of dollars of destruction, the carnage, the audacious disregard for the law is to take the characters and the readers on a journey to a place beyond the law of mortal human beings to a place I believe all of humanity is clamoring for, but they just don’t know how to get there. We have a culture that is addicted to safety, to laws; too many chains we willingly place upon ourselves in a grand scheme to have an advanced and fair society. But that’s not what we’re getting; we’re finding our freedoms being eroded away slowly and beyond our control, and the common cause is in our tendency to be driven by our fears by politicians and social do-gooders.
So the characters in Tail of the Dragon decide that life is moving by too quickly and they have a shot to pull those chains off for the first time in their lives, and they make the leap for freedom even if it means their death. This is why the planned provocation of the highway patrol takes place on the Fourth of July because the characters are declaring their freedom, even though they are fully aware they probably won’t live to see a sun set. The yearning for freedom is that important to them.
As a literary device I used many mythological symbols to take the characters to the edge of social acceptance to arrive at a life beyond the laws of mankind to learn the meaning of their existence, to touch the face of what they were meant to be. To step beyond the limits that all the social devices of our age place upon us as shackles, the characters had to break all the rules and reach for their human potential beyond the reach of the law to truly understand. The point of the chase is actually a metaphor for how society as a whole seeks to hold individuals to the limits of the law. And to the point of Tail of the Dragon, the law is made up primarily of social reformers who have control and manipulation in mind, and not the needs of the people in general. So the conflict works at many levels, and the characters are both running to it and from it so they can smash through some invisible social barrier they have no way to understand, until it’s too late.
Of course if everyone in society acted on these impulses, there would be chaos. But in the name of art, we can explore these emotions through these characters so that the reader can break free like Rick Stevens into the world beyond politicians, legal manipulation, and guilt ridden morality to a place where the human being can be everything that it was meant to be. And in Tail of the Dragon, even though the results are tragic, the hero quest is in the pursuit of this freedom that is uniquely American, a freedom I touched on so often during my motorcycle trips, that exists just out of our reach.
Q: So when does it come out and what’s in the future for Tail of the Dragon? What about a sequel, or a series? This has to become a movie.
A: Well, again, not to give anything away, I don’t think there could be a sequel. That’s all I can say about that. But the book should be out within months. The publisher has not given me a firm release date yet, which was pushed out in the last-minute because of a change by me to the manuscript during my final reading approval. But it will be very soon. As to a movie, I think that may be a possibility. But for now, I mean for it to be a literary experience that is very personal to the reader. This is a journey that is intended in a language only a book can provide. I envision that there will be many readers clamoring for a taste of freedom on long motorcycle trips like the ones my wife and I enjoy going on that will pack this book in their side bags and pull off at that McDonalds between Key West and Key Largo and just rest for a while and cool off while reading Tail of the Dragon over a Big Mac like I’ve enjoyed doing over the years on many occasions. I have no doubt that the visitors to the mountain cabins around the actual Dragon will buy the book and enjoy reading it in the early morning mist that hovers around the mountains and contemplate the grand adventure of Rick Stevens and his epic car chase. A book is a personal journey that is deeply intimate for the reader, and as a lover of books, I put everything the written word can articulate into Tail of the Dragon to provide for readers an adventure they will never forget and yearn for again and again.
Stay tuned!!!! –And pass this on to a friend!
This is what people are saying about my new book–Tail of the Dragon