Piranha Firing Point
Interview with author Michael DiMercurio
by John Channing
SUBSIM Review Exclusive; April 1999
I don't know about you, dear reader, but sometimes I feel positively abandoned by some of my favorite authors. Larry Bond has taken to writing conspiracy based fiction, Clancy just seems interested in slapping his name on anything that will make him a buck, and for the life of me I can't seem to warm up to any of Bart Davis's works.
Thank God for Michael DiMercurio!
Not only has he stayed true to his subject (modern nuclear submarine fiction) but also with every book he writes he just gets better and better. In his first novel "Voyage of the Devilfish" we met his main character, Michael "Patch" Pacino; a brash young navy officer in command of his first Submarine, the USS Devilfish. Over the course of the next three novels we got to watch "Patch" not only mature as an officer, but grow as a person, while enjoying some of the best nail biting action sequences anywhere.
Now, with the publication of his fifth novel "Piranha Firing Point" Michael DiMercurio has given us his best yet. Set in the near future the author has placed our hero up against almost impossible odds, but in a frighteningly plausible scenario. While maintaining many of the background themes that have run throughout his novels, he advances not only the characters, but the technology and the possible art of future wars in a way that leaves the reader wanting more.
One of the main reasons Michael's books have the ring of truth about them is that, of all of the recent popular writes on the subject, Michael is the only graduate of the "been there, done that" class. Michael was the main propulsion assistant to the chief engineer (MPA) and machinery division officer and senior lieutenant aboard ("bull" LT) the nuclear powered attack submarine USS Hammerhead. For several years Michael and his fellow submariners traveled the globe giving the Russians fits and driving the Libyans right around the bend. If you want to read some REAL Sub Stuff, check out Michael's website, WWW.USSDEVILFISH.COM. There is even a story about a particularly harrowing adventure that he had in my hometown!
Earlier, I mentioned in passing that there are several themes that have developed over the course of his five books and I was interested in exploring them a little further. I decided to start on a lighter note...
John Channing: It is no secret (in fact you and I have discussed it elsewhere on this site) that you are not now and never were a particular fan of the Los Angeles class of submarine. In your latest book. "Piranha Firing Point" you seem to have taken the opportunity to settle the matter once and for all. Was this simply a necessary matter of setting up the ultimate confrontation, or were you just indulging in a little 'revenge'?
Michael DiMercurio: Over the years I've had a change of heart about the 688s. They were born as a platform much different from the venerated Sturgeon-class (renamed the Piranha-class in my fiction based on my one-man war against the ship naming machinery that brought you the USS Puffer and the USS Queenfish, not to mention the USS Jimmy Carter -- where are the Barracuda and the Piranha and the Devilfish? A: in Michael DiMercurio's fiction!). Sturgeon, or the 637 class, was the ultimate war-fighter -- able to dive beneath the polar icecap, spy in enemy harbors, trail enemy subs and connect torpedoes with their doomed hulls, and reach out and touch over-the-horizon surface ships with cruise missiles, and even do land attack with Tomahawks. But 688s made their debut and followed carrier battle groups around.
You'll find my opinion of that employment of submarines in "Piranha Firing Point" when legendary captain John Patton tries to guard the carrier group from a 688 - it is not surprising that the result is the USS Annapolis resting quietly on the bottom of the East China Sea. But 688s are now commanded and built by officers who grew up on Sturgeons, and the fighting spirit of 637 now lives on in 688, as the class has grown to be the 688 Improved class. It now is as capable as it could ever have been -- it can crash through polar ice and maintain independent operations. It is now a ship I'd be proud to take to test depth.
But even the best eventually die. Ashes to ashes. And as we move into the next century it is clear that the 688 can no longer do the job. The Seawolf class would be able to take the load, but the class has been canceled. The next vessels, the NSSNs, on the drawing board now in the form of the USS Virginia, will be able to execute the full spectrum missions required. I have explored this in "Piranha" with the prototype SSNX and further in the next novel, "Threat Vector," which will come out in February 2000, where the USS Virginia will go to sea.
JC: OK, just before we get into the book in detail and seeing that you raised the subject of the 637 class submarines, there is a question I have been wanting to ask for a while. On your Website you tell about the time you tagged 2 Russian SSGN's and an SSN in the Med. What is a propulsion guy doing up in the control room hanging out with the "sonar girls"?
MD: Great Question. In the U.S. sub force, most of our tactical officers are "nukes" first. The training pipeline qualifies a prospective sub officer at nuclear power school, then nuclear prototype. Prototype training is working on an actual electricity-producing plant built inside a hull, but the support systems are all land-based. This usually proves to be one of the most difficult learning experiences. When prototype is passed, the officers go to Submarine Officer's Basic Course for classroom training on sub systems and tactics. When that is complete, the detailers send the officers to their division officer tour on an operational submarine.
During the division officer tour, usually lasting three years, the junior officer first takes a division (a group of enlisted men with a particular rating and function -- my divisions were radio, then electrical div, then machinery division), while qualifying in submarines. Qualifying in submarines begins with qualification as engineering officer of the watch (EOOW), the nuclear-trained officer who supervises that watch of engineering operations. When this is accomplished, the officer will stand EOOW at sea or engineering duty officer in port while continuing to work on officer of the deck (OOD) quals. At sea, the radio division officer runs the radio division with his radio leading petty officer or chief. This alone is a 110% duty -- learning from the chief how to be an effective officer while learning a differing view from the boss, the department head, a second tour senior officer. Add to that watchstanding as EOOW or EDO while working on OOD quals and you have yourself a 120 hour work week.
When the officer completes OOD qualification, he is given the task of commanding the submarine during a watch. Contrary to Star Trek, a naval ship is run hour to hour by the OOD. When there is something beyond his limit of authority, the OOD puts in a call to the captain, or the captain may take the "conn" during a tactical situation. But for the most part, the OOD runs the ship. When the OOD quals are signed off, the officer is qualified in submarines and earns gold submarine dolphins, the pin featured in the website logo at http://www.ussdevilfish.com.
So it is that a lowly lieutenant, with the day job of main propulsion assistant (M-div officer and the engineer's leading junior officer), will stand officer of the deck watch from noon to 1800 on a Tuesday when a Russian Charlie class meanders by. But at the time the OOD is running a watch section, with a junior officer of the deck working the tactical problem of the distance of the target and his speed and course, the sonar supervisor, the diving officer, helmsman, planesman, chief of the watch, messenger and the aft engineering watchsection including the EOOW and his crew of a half dozen men.
That's how I can tell my son, "your dad used to be a submarine driver." I literally drove the ship from point A to point B. Usually all officers qualified in submarines except the captain and executive officer stand the OOD watch -- they remain senior upper tier supervision, keeping the big picture and making the overall tactical decisions.
JC: This seems to be the difference between your books and oh, say Tom Clancy's, Larry Bonds or Bart Davis's books. In yours there seems to be moments of real truth . I remember in "Voyage of the Devilfish" there is a moment where Patch is on the Conn, facing down a Russian torpedo and when one of his officers wants to question his actions Patch just waves him off. Another that sticks with me is in "Attack of the Seawolf", when, after much plotting and planning about how to deal with their situation Patch simply states "Oh, hell, maybe we just worry about that when the time comes". These moments feel like they come from real life. How deep is the well from which you can draw these moments?
MD: There have been times when finishing a book that I walk around completely absent. I'm not in the physical world, I'm inside the story. I have so many driving points that one more pull-over and I'm walking, and all my tickets come from those last few days of finishing a story, when I write I'm not at the desk, I'm on the conn watching the captain drive the ship. And when I'm there, it is as much a memory as it is a creation. It has to be the same wiring of the brain that a parent experiences when lecturing a child in the voice of his own father. When I was a plebe at Annapolis, I was flamed on by a first class midshipman from Mississippi, and the guy wanted to get me out of the program so badly he could taste it. I was flamed on day and night for months, until the academic year began and the firsties had bigger fish to fry. Fast forward to when I was a first class midshipman running a squad on plebe detail, and I flamed on my own plebes day and night, and -- you guessed it -- I did it in a Mississippi accent. The story of Attack of the Seawolf has underlying it the story of my own divorce, so Pacino's attempts to deal with futility mirrored my own. Is it real?
But one thing I know when I hear English professors talk about fiction -- you can never fully understand what the author has on his mind unless you know the author's life, because the fight the admiral gets in with his wife is never truly fiction -- it's something that happened last Wednesday.
JC: But sometimes your writing crosses the line from being an extension of real life to being positively prescient. What I mean is that you called the sale of a Russian Carrier to the Chinese a long time before it actually happened. Now, in "Piranha Firing Point" we have the US Military trying to conduct a war in the full glare of CNN's lights, ala the situation in Kosovo, with tragic results. Patch has an interesting solution to the problem but, in the post Gulf War world, do you really think the military could get away with this?
MD: Yes. The military is becoming keenly aware of the press, and masses of officers ponder the strategy of how to use the press. At this point, I harbor the theory that the press is seen as a tool of the military given the press pools and other "Tactical uses" of the television camera. We are seeing in Kosovo pretty much what the military wants seen. That's not to say they control media in the target cities, but they do absolutely control the press onboard ship and in the combat areas. I sincerely doubt we will ever again see the kind of reporting we had in Vietnam, where the press showed the world images that damaged the military. The administration and the military work hand in hand with the press to get the message out. Now, with Mr. Clinton, that helps the administration.
During the Reagan years, nothing really leaked out about the operations Uncle Ron wanted conducted without the glare of the press lights. Patch Pacino, however, watched the press grossly leak out the strategy of what had been intended as a sneak attack. It is possible a president would want the coverage for political reasons that would damage military strategy; we haven't seen this in reality but "Piranha Firing Point" demonstrates how it could happen. The punishment politically for a theater commander who would freeze out the press like Pacino did would be swift and merciless, UNLESS he won the war, as Pacino did. If he hadn't, you could count on Patch Pacino sailing the Chesapeake Bay in his sailboat full time.
JC: But Patch has always been a risk taker, and a bit of a rebel. It seems however that, in "Piranha Firing Point", we are beginning to see some sides of Patch that have, until now, been hidden. He seems to be evolving into a more fleshed out personality than before. More depth ... more emotion...
MD: It was always there, but edited out. My previous editor and publisher Don Fine (the man who launched Frederick Forsythe and Dale Brown) was always "going back to the gun." No doubt about it, the machines are fascinating, but the men who drive them are more so. Now that I've graduated, Pacino's self comes out from behind the curtain.
JC: A lot of the fun of your books (and make no mistake about it Dear Reader... this book is FUN!) comes from the interplay between the men and the machines. Your vision of the sonar system of the future, the Plasma weapons, the "Rising Sun" class Japanese subs... where does this stuff come from?
MD: This will sound like I lack modesty, and believe me, I don't -- this is a humbling career -- but the ability you speak of is one of the gifts I have been given. I wake up and I meditate, clearing my mind of everything, and these things fall into my lap.
JC: You are one of the last writers in this genre today. For true fans of modern military fiction (especially submarine fiction) the pickings are pretty lean. People like Tom Clancy and Larry Bond made their reputations (and presumably a fortune) writing about it, but have all but abandoned the form. What do you think about what your 'competition ' is putting out these days?
MD: I spent some time recently during my usual "eclipse" -- the period of writer's block that sets in between submission of a manuscript and hearing back from my editor, during which I die a thousand deaths -- reading up on the competition, including Larry Bond, Dale Brown, and Patrick Robinson. I find all of them talented in the extreme, to the point that I feel like I'm unworthy to sit at this desk and presume to write a word.
But one thing I realize, from the perspective that a wonderful wife like Patti (Colleen O'Shaughnessy in "Piranha Firing Point") can give, is that my style and approach are so completely different from anyone out there as to make my writing unique. I say that with all humility, because my point of view is that of someone who has been deeply disappointed by machinery, deeply wounded by military relationships, exhausted at sea to the point of hospitalization, and confronted with my own mortality and my own limits. On two occasions at 600 feet beneath the vast Atlantic I thought I would never see the surface again -- we call it "seeing God" -- with one near meltdown and one flooding accident, and I'm not afraid to admit that both times I hurried to change my boxers.
I don't write stories about perfect secret agents with squared away lives like Mr. Clancy's Jack Ryan, or even Dale Brown's self-possessed Patrick McLanahan, but of Bruce Phillips, so distraught over losing his fiancée that he drinks himself into a stupor and wakes up 1000 miles at sea in his stateroom when the ship was mobilized in an emergency, and of Michael Pacino, a naval officer haunted by the loss of his father, who tries hourly to measure up to the old man despite mountainous self-doubt, whose actions cause more than one of his ships to hit the bottom and stay there. He's a man who has faced death and depression and the limits of his own talent and survived.
The background of my novels is not the perfect blipping control rooms of Patrick Robinson with starchy uniformed naval officers with quaint accents, it is the dirty and half-functional control rooms of my youth, stale cigar smoke hanging in the air, coffee drinking chiefs glaring at young rumpled lieutenants, a sonar contact that can't seem to be classified, an enemy out there in the depths that the crew can't find because (not even Clancy grasped this) the sonar suite can't deal with submarines that have not been recorded, analyzed, and preloaded into the computer, and a new ship on sea trials might as well be invisible until the torpedo comes screaming out of nowhere.
In my world presidents and admirals are as confused and lost as they are in real life, the day's battle dictated as much by the morning's fight with the wife as it is by the chart and tide and sonar screen. In short, when you open my pages, you are aboard the sub with the smell of ozone and sewage and stale coveralls, missing three nights of sleep and faced with an impossible mission during a time when all you can think about is what is going on with the kids at home until the flooding starts in engineroom lower level and all hell breaks loose and sonar reports a torpedo in the water and the firecontrol system shuts down and the lights go out and the surface and survival are seven hundred feet overhead and the ocean bottom is five miles beneath your sneakers. It's a slice of how life really is, revolving around the men -- the heroes -- who may not have washboard abs but who fight the battles and die trying and do it all for $40 a week in hazardous duty pay.
And that is what I have to offer for the cover price, and it's what I swear no one else out there can do or write. When you put down one of mine, you'll feel like you just pulled back into Norfolk from the run from hell, but with your dolphin pin gleaming on your chest.
As a famous submariner once said, "Take her down."
Want more? Read Behind the Mind of Michael DiMercurio
There was nothing else to say. Friends and fellow enthusiasts, Michael is the real deal. If you don't already have the complete collection of Michael's books point your browser to www.ussdevilfish.com and order them now. It looks like it is going to be a long time before another Submarine Simulation is published, but Michael's books fill the void VERY NICELY.
Michael DiMercurio's next book, "Threat Vector" is due out February 2000.
All of Michael DiMercurio's books --Piranha Firing Point, Voyage of the Devilfish, Attack of the Seawolf, Phoenix Sub Zero and Barracuda Final Bearing -- are available in paperback from Penguin USA at
Ron Martini's SUBMARINE BOOK STORE.
Dive into DiMercurio's official website: USS DEVILFISH.COM
©1999 SUBSIM Review