Interview with author Michael DiMercurio
by Neal Stevens
SUBSIM Review Exclusive; June 4, 2000
For military adventure fans, one thing is apparent: Michael DiMercurio has taken the reins from Clancy and picked up where Beach left off. What distinguishes him from other sub fiction writers? He constructs--no, crafts-- compelling submarine novels that include developed characters. That, and as has been stated in SUBSIM Review before, DiMercurio is the real McCoy--an ex-submarine officer on USS Hammerhead.
His latest offering, Threat Vector, opens a new chapter in DiMercurio's future sub sagas. Pacino, the old warrior we sailed with in DiMerc's first five novels, has moved up the chain of command and a new commander takes the helm of the fabled Devilfish. Set in 2018, the world and technology have evolved. Daylight acoustic imaging has become the powerful new medium in underwater detection. Torpedoes come equipped with solid rocket boosters, capable of bursts up to 300 knots! While these may seem far-fetched today, it bears worth remembering that technological superiority demands the refinement and development of new weapons. And DiMercurio seems to have an intuitive grasp of the general direction.
Michael DiMercurio can also be distinguished from other writers by his openness and visibility. It seems a given that once at a certain level of prominence, a writer will close off all access from the world at large. Not so, DiMercurio! He is very open and willing to discuss submarine topics. His website www.ussdevilfish.com is updated and stocked with photos and stories--it's a good read in itself.
SUBSIM Review has been granted access to DiMercurio and here's what we learned.
SUBSIM Review: Threat Vector is your sixth novel. Do you feel you have established yourself as a mainstream submarine fiction writer?
Michael DiMercurio: I measure being mainstream by a few data points – the first is if the novel is in the airports when I pass by. I’ve started to ask for myself by name ("I hear this guy is really good – where is his stuff?") I haven’t had to do that with Threat Vector. It was everywhere. The second data point is seeing the ad in USA Today. The third was walking into Barnes & Noble and seeing it at eye-level in a pyramid display when Clancy’s SSN was at my shins (Clancy's SSN should have been positioned at his feet, it was that bad--ed.). Perhaps most telling was that a close friend, a noted surgeon who has never had time to read my stuff before, was absorbed in Threat Vector late at night, and when his beautiful wife came to bed naked and ready for action, he kept putting her off because the plot was too good. She woke unfulfilled and annoyed at the author. Perhaps the deepest insult to the wife is the greatest compliment to the writer.
SSR: How much authority do you have over the plot, tone, and structure over Threat Vector compared to Voyage of the Devilfish?
MD: I had total control over Threat Vector. The editor who did this one, Joe Pittman, was a true craftsman, and made a word count without deleting anything critical, and allowed me to counter-edit his first cut. The more I grow in the business the more I see the essentiality of editing. It is an art, and the unedited versions are unreadable by comparison. The trouble with Voyage of the Devilfish was that it was not counter-edited and suffered as a result, and publisher Don Fine wanted to make it a Flight of the Old Dog while I wanted it to be Hemingway in a submarine. I want to know what the captain is feeling, not just what action he takes. So that has evolved nicely, but as far as action, plot, tone and structure, no one other than the author can create that.
SSR: There are some changes in the protagonist department. Where does Pacino go from here?
MD: I was hoping you'd ask about the future antagonists, so that answer first. World politics is like sandlot baseball. We learn about the other guys by fighting them, and by fighting them we learn who they are and that we can trust them. We found out about the Japanese and the Russians and the Germans and the Vietnamese. And having fought, we have become friends. The Cold War was tough, because we had to fight them without nuking each other, and it was close in '62. But here we are now, with a few nation-criminal states. I think we still have to find out who the Islamics are, which is why I made them the bad guys in Phoenix Sub Zero. And we have some learning to do about the Chinese, although two books have explored a Chinese civil war that drags in the U.S. But while nations become more trusting of each other, the new "nation-state" is the corporation, and anyone who knows the psychology of group behavior (remember the Nazis?) knows that a corporation could become the worst enemy. As far as the protagonist, we are at a fork in the road, where Pacino's son, Midshipman Anthony "Patch" Pacino, will carry on, while a second series becomes launched as we go back in time to when Michael Pacino was a junior officer aboard the USS Birmingham under Cdr. Rocket Ron Daminski. That book will be followed by Pacino's executive officer tours, and from there, his first command, the USS Devilfish in her three missions before Voyage of the Devilfish.
SSR: Pardon me for guessing, but I can't help but wonder if the female Captain, Karen Petri, in Threat Vector may be a future protagonist. How do you feel about women on submarines?
MD: Hope you'll pardon a long answer (remember how I value editors!):
I've watched the debate about women serving aboard U.S. nuclear submarines. My comments come from my experience as a member of USNA '80, the first Academy class to admit women, and from my service in the submarine force in the early 80s aboard the fast attack submarine Hammerhead, which served the Reagan Administration in the hectic op-tempo that contributed to winning the Cold War, and from two years of shoreduty at the Academy teaching male and female midshipmen thermodynamics.
For most of my life I have been an outspoken opponent of women serving in the military in any capacity. James Webb made the case and I wholeheartedly agreed with him. I learned in 1976 that I had been nominated to the Academy by a front page article reading, "LOCAL GIRL NOMINATED TO U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY." The article's continuation on the last page of the sports section read, "also nominated was Michael DiMercurio…" Induction Day 1976 was a media circus, the cameras and hot lights and microphones following every female plebe. It would seem the class of '80 did not have a single male member, or so the press would make one believe. As a youngster at Annapolis, I was interviewed by a writer from the same paper. We talked for an hour, spending all of thirty seconds discussing the women in the class. The resulting article quoted me flaming on the women in the class, with their lower physical standards, taking up space at an institution preparing its graduates to fight a hot war with the Soviets in a fleet that legally could not allow women in combat. We were surrounded by rumors of scandals about female midshipmen and inappropriate sex. Youngster cruise I watched as a double rotor UH-46D Sea Knight helicopter came within two feet of touching down on the deck of the LST Fresno and then flying off. The other choppers all landed. It turned out the pilot of aircraft that didn't land was a woman, and could not even touch the deck of the ship. At USNA graduation I was twenty-first in the class, and the media cameras were silent as I walked up to get my diploma. When number fifty-three stood up, the bright lights came on - the top female midshipman was graduating, covered live on national television. One of the most respected graduates of the class of '80 married a female classmate after graduation. We held back comment, wondering if perhaps he saw something we were missing. At nuclear power school I met a woman at a party I began dating. She turned out to be a junior grade lieutenant at the Pentagon. We went our separate ways, but not because she was a female officer. Later, as a dolphin-wearing lieutenant I visited the bridge of the tender ship L.Y. Spear and watched a female lieutenant say in a soprano voice, "I can be just as good an officer of the deck as any man." She giggled after she said it. Back on Hammerhead our contemptuous imitation of her could be heard over the next year.
When I returned to USNA to teach, I realized something had changed. The culture was different. Where before a wall had been built between the men and women, in the late 80s the men and women hadn't seemed to get the message that they were supposed to be enemies. In contrast to the rumors of sexual scandals and feminine manipulation present in the 70s, the women of the classes of '87, '88, '89 and '90 seemed behaved, military and competent. They were…midshipmen. They were accepted, they seemed to fit. I could barely believe it.
I had the opportunity to interview an F-14 aviator who screened for squadron command but elected to punch out of the Navy. His nightmare account of a deployment ruined by two dozen pregnancies and the evacuation of the pregnant women was exacerbated by the senior officers who refused to fight this trend, afraid in the post-Tailhook Navy to have their careers ruined by seeming anti-female.
The debate about women in subs then flared up. At that point I had written five successful fiction novels of nuclear submarines (Voyage of the Devilfish, Attack of the Seawolf, Phoenix Sub Zero, Barracuda Final Bearing, and Piranha Firing Point), and as my plot was now happening a few years in the future, I now had to make a choice. Would the NSSN-class submarine Devilfish in the novel Threat Vector have a woman aboard, and if so, what would she be like? The answer is in Threat Vector, but Karen Petri works. The question is, how does she compare to the male skippers on the pier?
My recommendation is that if women must be integrated into the force, they come in as senior officers. No one aboard would ever question the authority of the executive officer, who is ten feet tall no matter who he (or she) is. The Navy would do well to take a few dozen surface ship female officers who have the best fitness reports and train them in submarines. Then put them to work as nuclear submarine navigators and watch them. My prediction is that half will fail, but the half who succeed will be worth the effort. Once females have "made their bones" as dolphin-wearers, then and only then should females be admitted to the junior officer and enlisted ranks. Females in the senior ranks will then be able to supervise and discipline the junior females and offer advice to the male command structure about commanding females without bias and without fear of post-Tailhook recriminations.
Now that the nuts-and-bolts of how this should be done is covered, should it be done? The submarine force works as an all-male force. Should we mess with success? I believe the question is not one we will have the luxury of answering. Females aboard submarines will happen whether we like it or not. With the political situation today and in the future, the admission of women to the submarine force seems inevitable. However, the submarine force has the discipline and the talent to make this work, just as they have succeeded at sea against improbable odds since John Holland sold the gas-electric submarine to the Navy a hundred years ago.
A final word on the subject. The Navy needs to realize that pregnancy is absolutely incompatible with naval service. Any female volunteer to the force should be given Norplant long-term birth control. That problem solved, the afloat commander can operate at sea as he always has.
SSR: Would you favor all-woman submarines over co-ed?
MD: No. The interesting thing about group behavior is that diversity improves performance if there is community between the members. We cover each other's blind spots. In the past this has been done by the close relationships between sub officers and enlisted men, who generally come from differing cultures and have disparate goals. With a fully integrated force, we can help each other manage the warfare. But an all female crew would lack what an integrated one could have. If the fleet commanders don't believe it, they can experiment (in peacetime) with various crew formulations and run sub-vs-sub exercises, and may the best crew win.
SSR: It seems at times you imagine and deploy new submarine gear in your novels that seem natural in the current progression of technology. Have you ever been contacted by government or Navy personnel over some of the technological aspects of your novels?
MD: While I have friends in the black programs, I do a lot of research and am overeducated on the laws of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and relativity. As long as the physics of my extrapolations don't violate known laws, I employ them. But the difference between my new weapon systems and those of other futurists is that my gear has an oil stain on it and bursts into flames in its hour of need, until it has been used for a few generations of technology (gee, just like real life).
SSR: How would you describe your evolution as a writer?
MD: Much of my education came before I began writing fiction, but I've learned some hard lessons since Voyage of the Devilfish. One of those is a deeper knowledge of people and what motivates them. The second is how to craft a plot - whether to outline it in detail, in broad strokes or wing it. I've tried them all. But third is the recognition of how to avoid writer's block - that is a trade secret I'll take to the grave.
SSR: Would it be accurate to say that a careful reader could find details in your novels that are intentional links to your experience as a submariner officer and as a writer? For example, in Threat Vector, the female XO is named "Petri"; in a chemist's lab, a petri dish is used for experiments in growing bacteria. Are you suggesting or relating the female captain is an experiment?
MD: I love this question because I've wondered it myself. The answer is that none of these kind of links are conscious, but are most certainly subconscious. Which makes me wonder about where the words come from.
SSR: Interesting. One of the other allusions I noticed was an officer named "Eve Cavalla"; as a member of the Cavalla Historical Foundation to restore the WWII memorial submarine of the same name in Galveston, Texas, you might imagine the thrill I got from that neat trick.
MD: I do research when I should be writing but am avoiding it, and then suddenly needed a name for an aide, quickly, so as not to disturb the flow of prose, and that's what came out. Once again, unintentional.
SSR: How about the not-so-subtle renaming of the Virginia to Hammerhead. You were on the Hammerhead, is this your way of paying back dues to your old boat?
MD: Naming attack subs names like Queenfish, Puffer, Spadefish, Jimmy Carter and Virginia has made me less than satisfied. Hammerhead is an ideal name, as are Barracuda, Piranha and Devilfish.
SSR: Your submarine stories keep creeping ahead in the future. Threat Vector is set in 2018. Do you envision a point where you might wrap up the current series and start a new series in the eighties or nineties with existing technologies?
MD: Yes. The one after Terminal Run will be set in 2001 with Pacino as a junior officer.
SSR: U-571 scored big at the box office. Any bites from Hollywood for a Devilfish movie?
MD: Two with some homework due on my side. We are approaching this carefully since this could be a career wrecker.
SSR: Which novel would you favor? Whom would you cast as Pacino?
MD: Attack of the Seawolf. George Clooney. Alternate: Dylan McDermitt (from the TV series "The Practice").
SSR: What other activities are you engaged in besides writing?
MD: I would like to be an open ocean sailor on a sloop rigged boat and take it out alone to the Caribbean (the way Terminal Run begins). But my time is booked cleaning the pool, cutting the grass, painting the house and taking out the garbage.
SSR: How about a teaser on your next novel.
MD: Commander Rob Catardi is the captain of the nuclear fast attack submarine Piranha and is considered to be one of the Navy's stand-out hot-running young officers. An Annapolis grad, he had been a star running back on Navy's football team, deeply humiliating West Point in every Army-Navy game of his four years at the Academy. He was a marine engineering major on the Superintendent's List, and his tall blonde girlfriend was a model. But Catardi is not recruiting-poster-perfect. He came from humble beginnings in a gritty Bronx neighborhood, the son of a struggling jeweler. Catardi's mother died when he was young. Many of Catardi's boyhood friends are gone, victims of violence. His father is older now, and barely able to comprehend Catardi's level of success in the Navy, asking him, "are you still a sailor?" a year after he attended the Piranha change-of-command ceremony.
Catardi is in his stateroom preparing for the Piranha's deployment. He stands and smiles as he shakes the hand of the visiting rider, Anthony "Patch" Pacino, the midshipman embarking for his first class cruise, the son of the legendary admiral whom Catardi had been proud to serve. Catardi was taking reports of the ship's readiness to get underway for a mission he considers a career-breaker, a open water submarine-versus-submarine torpedo-firing exercise. Career-breaking because if he wins, it is to be expected, but if he loses, he loses more than just the exercise, he loses a way of life. Catardi's adversary will be no regular opponent, but a new weapon system designed to carry no less than a hundred weapons to sea, powered by an ultra-high density nuclear reactor, with less than a third of the tonnage of Piranha, with the reduction in size owing to the fact that the opponent will carry no hotel facilities within her hull. No crew's quarters, no crew's mess, no head, no bathing facilities, no clothes-washing ability, and no atmospheric control equipment to keep the air aboard breathable for the crew - because there is no crew. The submarine he is about to fight is commanded by machine intelligence.
The Pentagon's latest "network centric" all-service philosophy has been to replace expensive people and all their personnel and logistical problems with cheap, bulletproof electronic systems. Attack aircraft have been replaced by a generation of cruise missiles so advanced that they would be barely recognized two decades before. The latest class of nuclear submarine, the NSSN, has replaced some 40 sailors with increased automation. The newer experimental submarine class, named the Snarc-class, is a completely robotic system. Navy surface ships have become the first to be all-automated, with the sailing of the USS Yorktown, a heavy gas turbine-powered cruiser armed with several hundred advanced cruise missiles. The Air Force has been flying automated tankers for the last year, and the Army's MacArthur tanks are plugged into the battle network, run by network computers. The Pentagon's vision for the next decade is to have an all-automated force fight the next world conflict, with the goal a "zero casualty" war in which the U.S. prevails. It is hotly debated in Congress, but as technology advances, redundant bullet-proof computer systems have become cheaper than an infantry soldier with all his logistical demands.
The latest experimental effort is the construction of a fully-automated nuclear powered submarine. The submarine's construction is revolutionary. It is mostly a weapon carrier, with no torpedo room, just externally loaded torpedo and cruise missile tubes. The midsection contains the batteries and the control system, and the aft space is the power module and the main motor. The entire vessel is small -- a mere 180 feet long, with a beam (diameter) of 26 feet. The name of the submarine is Snarc, for Submarine Naval Automated Robotic Combat System.
Thanks Michael and keep up the good work. --Neal Stevens
All of Michael DiMercurio's books --Threat Vector, 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
Previous SUBSIM Review interviews
with Michael DiMercurio
©2000 SUBSIM Review