Growing up during the 1950s, Robert Bidinotto became enthralled by TV vigilante heroes, such as The Lone Ranger, Zorro, and Batman. That fascination continued into adulthood, when he became a fan of action thrillers by such writers as Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, and Mickey Spillane—and later, of those by Lee Child, Stephen Hunter, Brad Thor, and Vince Flynn.
Another major influence was Ayn Rand, whose fiction and nonfiction shaped his ideas and values as Robert launched a writing career. From the seeds planted in childhood—and nurtured by Rand’s fictional characters Francisco d’Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold—the image of a unique hero had been growing in his mind: Dylan Hunter—a crusading reporter, also operating secretly as an urban vigilante, fighting for justice in an unjust society.
HUNTER (2011) attracted strong initial sales and glowing reviews. Amazon editors selected HUNTER as an “Editors’ Pick.” Within a week, Robert’s self-published, debut thriller soared to #4 on the Kindle bestseller list, to #1 among all Kindle “Mysteries and Thrillers,” and also hit the Wall Street Journal’s “Top 10 Fiction Ebook” list. He has since published two sequels in the Dylan Hunter thrillers series: BAD DEEDS, named 2014 “Book of the Year” by the Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance; and WINNER TAKES ALL, released late in 2017 to stellar reviews.
Robert Bidinotto is now a full-time writer of what he calls “thrillers for thinkers,” whose themes and values are strongly influenced by Ayn Rand’s philosophy. He is currently at work on the fourth adventure of vigilante hero Dylan Hunter, whom he describes as “the new face of justice.”
The Atlas Society’s Contributing Editor Marilyn Moore recently interviewed Robert about his vigilante hero, fiction writing, and Ayn Rand’s influence on his work.
MM: Dylan Hunter’s vigilantism is Randian. You compare him to the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld from Atlas Shrugged.
RB: Like me, Ayn Rand clearly had a soft spot in her heart for crusading vigilantes. Ragnar, her swashbuckling, anti-statist pirate, is the most obvious comparison to Dylan. Biographers tell us that when she was young, she loved the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks silent film “The Mark of Zorro.” She once described Francisco d’Anconia, another flamboyant hero from Atlas Shrugged, as having been inspired by Zorro and The Scarlet Pimpernel—both of them politically motivated vigilantes. The author-protagonist in her short story “The Simplest Thing in the World” fantasizes writing a story about a “crusading blackmailer.” In the Introduction to her play Night of January 16th, she described, sympathetically, “the appeal of the ‘noble crook’ in fiction.” And in The Fountainhead, architect-hero Howard Roark famously dynamites a housing project because his design was vandalized by government-hired architects—a blatant act of vigilantism.
Rand explicitly rejected real-life vigilantism, and so do I. But in fiction, a crusading vigilante can be a great symbol of individualism—of the lone individual fighting for justice when the government is either absent, powerless, or corrupt.
MM: In the book 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand, published in 2010, Mickey Spillane warmly acknowledged that he and Ayn Rand were fans of each other’s fiction and that he and Rand were close friends. When asked how the friendship ended, he replied, “No, we never really ended. She died. That was it.”
RB: I’m not surprised she liked Spillane so much. Mike Hammer, his private-eye hero, was probably the archetypal tough-guy vigilante of the 1950s. And both Rand and Spillane were literary rebels and mavericks. I think they gave each other the respect and encouragement that neither received from the literary establishment.
MM: Besides the vigilante theme, there are many other Randian aspects to your work. You call Dylan Hunter “an unapologetic romantic,” for example. I agree. Dylan and Annie strike me as Randian lovers. When they meet, they are attracted to each other physically. He is handsome and masculine. She is beautiful and feminine. Rand would have loved the sexual attraction between the two. Then they learn of their shared values, specifically justice. They have issues to work out, but those issues aren’t related to Dylan’s masculinity or Annie’s femininity. The relationship is a loving one, and sexual (Hunter really puts Annie through her paces), and both give and receive the best from each other. Moreover, while they both have independent lives, she loves him completely and looks up to him, and he deserves it.
You point out that women readers love this dynamic. Now that many women think that masculinity is toxic, is it time to give Rand’s understanding of romantic-erotic love the credit it deserves?
RB: I can only hope so. I don’t think the warped feminist view of “toxic masculinity” is shared by most women. But I agree that Dylan’s and Annie’s passionate romance is utterly Randian—and my female readers love it. In the series debut thriller, HUNTER, you have these two strong, independent people powerfully attracted to each other, at first sight. But unknown to each other, both are hiding secrets that propel them on a collision course. Imagine if John Galt had met Dagny Taggart early in Rand’s novel, and they had fallen in love—but didn’t know each other’s real identities or clashing goals. They unknowingly would be fighting against each other, and readers would have worried, “What will happen when they find out the truth?” That’s the sort of delicious romantic value-conflict Rand loved—and it’s exactly the conflict between the hero and heroine of HUNTER.
Nine-tenths of readers who review my books on Amazon love them. The one-tenth who don’t cite two main reasons. Either they disagree with the ideas and worldview dramatized in the stories, or they dislike the heroism and romance. A minority of male readers think Dylan’s idealism and romanticism weaken him as a man. Most women have the opposite reaction: they think that makes him more masculine and attractive. Well, in that debate, I’m firmly on the ladies’ side. There’s nothing the least bit weak or unmasculine about Dylan Hunter. He’s the ultimate alpha male. He’s just not a cynic.
That romantic idealism distinguishes Dylan from many other tough-guy, lone-wolf vigilantes, such as Lee Child’s popular Jack Reacher character. In most thrillers written by men, “the girl” serves one of two purposes. Either she’s a casual, temporary plaything for the cynical hero, or she becomes the love of his life…but then is killed off by the villain early in the story, propelling the hero on an angry, violent campaign of revenge.
Dylan is different. He’s a one-woman man, not a cynical player. He’s deeply in love with his Annie, and she with him. One of my creative challenges has been figuring out how Dylan can credibly keep his vigilante crusade going throughout a series, while at the same time maintaining his devoted, monogamous relationship with Annie. Which may turn into a marriage. Stay tuned.
MM: You always mention Ayn Rand as a major influence on you personally and professionally. What do you think of individuals who feel they have to give her up as juvenile or “bad philosophy,” those who publicly repudiate her and the influence her ideas had on them?
RB: Their motives are mixed. Some never fully understand her worldview, so her influence on them is shallow, a passing fad. Others realize, over time, how much her worldview clashes with that of the people around them. Not wanting to alienate themselves from friends and family, they cave to the emotional pressure and join the chorus mocking and criticizing her. Still others honestly conclude she was mistaken about important things.
I certainly don’t think Rand was right about everything. But I do think she was right about the most important things. She influenced me profoundly, and my life—and writing—has been better for it.
MM: You are writing a fourth novel. What are some of the benefits and challenges of developing a cast of characters over time?
RB: The benefits to me, as a writer, are both emotional and commercial. Emotional, because once you have created characters you love, you can more fully explore their lives in continuing adventures and build a rich, expansive, alternative universe of your own making. A novelist gets to play God: you remake the world in your own image, according to your own values. That’s a great source of enjoyment.
The commercial benefits are great, too. Once a reader becomes hooked on one story in a series, he will likely buy all the previous installments, too, and then become a binge-reader of all your future books. If you write standalone stories, though, each will appeal to a unique audience, so you mostly have to establish a new readership for each from scratch. Few bestselling authors support themselves either on single titles or standalone books; almost all of them write series built on compelling characters. When I published BAD DEEDS, the first sequel to HUNTER, sales of HUNTER took off again. Sales of both books spiked once more when I released the third novel in the series, WINNER TAKES ALL.
My main challenge in writing a popular series is putting out new tales fast enough to satisfy impatient readers. Dylan Hunter has amassed a loyal audience of many thousands of fans. They’ll buy new stories as fast as I crank them out. Unfortunately, it’s taken me a long time to plot and write my thrillers. I’m trying to learn how to write them faster.
MM: Is a film adaptation of The Hunter Series in the works? Regardless, who do you think could play Dylan Hunter? Annie Woods?
After HUNTER was published and did so spectacularly well, I was put in contact with a top Hollywood entertainment attorney. He thought the novel was highly cinematic and would have broad public appeal as a film. He shopped HUNTER around the studios for a while back in early 2012. There was some interest, he told me, but no takers at the time, so that effort went cold. A couple of years ago I was approached by the president of a fledgling Hollywood company, Braveship Entertainment. He happens to be an Objectivist, and he really loves the book. Braveship has been raising capital for film projects, but so far, nothing has happened on that front, either.
The odds of any film concept getting past the talking stages are always small. And frankly, I have mixed emotions about a Dylan Hunter movie, anyway. My stories, their themes and characters, are too complex to be properly presented in only two hours. Also, authors are never allowed to control the script or the casting. And that’s a huge problem for me, because today’s entertainment industry is hostile, both ideologically and esthetically, to everything my stories embody. So even in the unlikely event a film were made, chances are overwhelming that they’d wreck it.
To allow my stories enough screen time to develop properly, the best option would be a TV series—ideally on Netflix or Amazon Prime TV, which also allow more creative freedom. For example, Amazon has done a fabulous job with “Bosch,” a crime series based on the bestselling novels by Michael Connelly. But Connelly is a big-name author who was granted unprecedented editorial control as an executive producer and one of the writers. I don’t have that kind of clout.
As for casting the key roles of Dylan and Annie—well, I do have images of certain actors who might fit the parts. I even visualize them as I write. But it’s a bad idea for an author to tell his readers whom he would cast, because they have their own visualizations of the characters, and I wouldn’t want to ruin that for them. Besides, the actors I envision are getting too old for the roles.
Rather than dwell on film possibilities, I’ll continue to focus on writing my novels, where I have total control over my Story World and its inhabitants.
MM: I’ve read that before you begin writing a novel you plan and outline extensively.
RB: I’m O.C.D. about it. I can’t write “seat of the pants.” I need to know everything significant about the story and its characters before I start writing, to make sure there are no plot holes. So I meticulously outline my novels first. I don’t want to write thousands of words that I’ll have to scrap later, because I followed some brainstorm into a logical dead end.
MM: Ayn Rand was also a planner. She wrote extensively in her journals, working out plot-themes, character analysis, real-life details. Did her writing process influence yours?
RB: A little, maybe. But it’s more a matter of how my brain works, plus the demands of my kind of stories, which start out theme-driven. If you start from some abstract theme or premise, you have to develop your characters and a plot from it logically, tightly integrating everything as you go. You can’t just dash off that kind of story seat-of-the-pants. At least, I can’t. It demands a lot of prior thinking about the characters, and planning how events are placed and paced, to build the suspense.
RB: You’re welcome. It was a fun project. It helped me better appreciate how amazing a feat of grand-scale integration Rand performed in that novel.
MM: Your first novel, Hunter, is organized around a timeline. Did you think about the timeline for Atlas Shrugged as a result of writing Hunter, or the other way around?
RB: Neither, really. It’s a matter of “form follows function.” The complexity of the novel’s Story World—which includes the hero’s colorful backstory, plus dozens of other characters in interweaving subplots—required me to develop a timeline of events just to keep all of it straight. It’s even more necessary when you build a series of novels upon a recurring cast of characters in a single Story World. You need to put it all on a “story calendar” so that it will make sense. Otherwise, I couldn’t have kept track of everything in the sequels, BAD DEEDS and WINNER TAKES ALL.
MM: I know that your favorite Rand novel is The Fountainhead, and I thought of that when reading your advice to novelists to stay focused on the story and to avoid drawing attention away from the story to yourself as “The Writer.” That sounds like Howard Roark-type advice. Do you connect that focus on integrity of the story to Howard Roark?
RB: It hadn’t occurred to me, but I suppose that’s true. Also, that advice stems from a practical storytelling need: to keep your readers immersed in your Story World. To me, that’s a fiction author’s Prime Directive. You want your readers spellbound and turning pages, unable to put your book down. Doing anything that distracts them back into the Real World is, to my mind, a novelist’s cardinal sin. That includes authorial intrusions into the story, which call attention to himself. Or excessive exposition—“telling” the reader things rather than “showing” them, which keeps the reader emotionally remote from the characters, and too conscious of the book’s narrator.
In my experience, too many aspiring young writers influenced by Rand are actually frustrated propagandists at heart. They don’t really care much about learning the craft of storytelling. Instead, they want to get on a soap box and preach about moral philosophy. So their characters are what I call “premises with feet”: one-dimensional mannequins whose sole purpose is to be mouthpieces for their authors’ rants.
As an author, I strive to disappear for the reader, to focus him or her solely on the story. I don’t want to remind the reader of my presence by engaging in preaching extraneous to the plot, or by showing off with arcane knowledge and fancy language. When I call attention to myself, I yank the reader out of the spell of my Story World. And once he’s distracted back into the Real World, he suddenly realizes he’s hungry and stops to eat, or he remembers some errand needing attention. That’s when he closes the book—and that’s when you may lose him for good. The highest writing compliment readers pay me is: “I couldn’t put the book down!” For me, that means: mission accomplished.
MM: Stephen King wrote that one reason people enjoy the horror genre is because it gives them the satisfaction of thinking, “At least my life isn’t that bad!” You mention similarly that the Dylan Hunter series can give readers a vicarious experience of justice. Do you think fiction can do more than that? Can reading stories like Dylan Hunter help us to straighten out some our own bad thinking about justice and in turn solve some of the problems with the criminal justice system?
RB: I think so—and hope so. We live in a world of rampant injustice. People are angry and frustrated about it, because their leaders and institutions aren’t providing the justice they need and crave. A growing number of people are also confused and uncertain about what “justice” actually means. Heroic tales of justice can give them moral clarity—and the inspiration to act morally.
Over the years, I grew to differ with Ayn Rand in one significant point of emphasis. She argued that the most important way to change a culture was to spread the right philosophy, starting in the universities. I agree with her about the importance of spreading the right philosophy, but not with that method of doing so.
Rand’s own greatest impact, on individuals and the culture, has come through her fiction, not her nonfiction—as an artist, not as a philosopher. Millions have been captivated and inspired by her stories, which outsell her nonfiction by at least an order of magnitude. And there’s a reason for that, brilliantly explained in a wonderful book, The Storytelling Animal, by scholar Jonathan Gottschall.
As children, we are shaped, often indelibly, by stories long before we encounter abstract philosophical ideas. In fact, the myths, fairy tales, picture books, TV shows, and movies we encounter when young coalesce within us into what I call a “Core Narrative”—an implicit causal story about the world, how it works, our roles within it, and right and wrong conduct. As we mature, that inner Narrative tends to direct our choices and actions—and even our later affinities for certain philosophies, religions, or ideologies, and aversions toward others. That’s why we so often find people’s views intractable to rational philosophical argument: those views are part of the deep-seated, pre-philosophical worldview of their inner Narratives. We try to persuade by dry abstractions, while they are under the sway of some dramatic inner morality play about right and wrong.
So how should we proceed to change a culture? Put simply, I believe that once a good philosophy has been defined by some seminal thinker—such as an Ayn Rand—then the most important way to spread its influence is not through academic routes, but through the arts—particularly the narrative art of storytelling. What Rand wrote in her first chapter of The Romantic Manifesto, combined with Gottschall’s book, persuaded me that what the world mainly needs at this critical time is not more good academics preaching rational values as abstractions, but more good storytellers dramatizing rational values through inspiring tales of heroic individualism.
I hope that besides being personally fulfilling to write and entertaining for readers, my Dylan Hunter stories will make their own small contributions to that cause.
Robert Bidinotto’s Dylan Hunter thrillers—HUNTER, BAD DEEDS, and WINNER TAKES ALL—are available in print and ebook editions on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2MZqn7z Audiobook editions are also available through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. To learn more about the author and his Dylan Hunter protagonist, or to obtain personally inscribed copies of his books, visit his website at: www.Bidinotto.com.