ONE TRUE SENTENCE
Craig McDonald has been on quite a ride since the launch of his debut novel, HEAD GAMES. It's hard to believe but in the course of a year, the author has racked up nominations for the Edgar, Gumshoe, Anthony and Crimespree awards. Not to mention scooped a new book deal with a leading publisher. PULP PUSHER tracked him down, with the help of his former editor Alison Janssen, to ask the big questions about writing, Hemingway and just what the hell makes 'one true sentence'.
Alison Janssen: Is there a part of you that wishes you were writing in the time of Hemingway and Lassiter? Your writing captures the mood of a dying era, and it evokes an almost sentimental sensealthough, it perhaps feels too macho to be labeled sentimentalityof that era's end. Do you feel a special connection with that time? Why?
Craig McDonald: I'd prefer to be writing in that time on many levels. We have an economic situation similar to what Hector would have had at about the same stage of his career, but Hector would have had all those pulp magazine markets and paperback original venues in which to publish.
I'm a fast and prolific writer who can and has written as many as four or five manuscripts a year. The guys of that Lassiter era, guys like Cornell Woolrich, say, used to publish four or five books a year under a string of pennames just so one byline didn't overwhelm the market. The options now are so limited and BookScan makes the name game dangerous. Consequently, I have a bunch of unpublished manuscripts that in terms of quality I'd put up against the two that have been released, but alas, I don't have the venues in which to publish those novels in the present market that Hector would have had in his time.
As to connecting to that era on a more personal level, yeah, I really do. My maternal grandfather, to whom I dedicated Head Games, turned me on to crime fiction with a basement full of old crime novels and with paperback reprints of Doc Savage pulps. I frankly have a tough time connecting with much contemporary crime fiction and I find that bias for the past I came to know through those old books is actually getting stronger over time.
AJ: Do you find transitioning between your journalism writing and your fiction writing difficult? Is there anything in particular you do to get into the mood?
CM: What I havemaybe because of journalism, or maybe I drifted into journalism because of these qualities (I can't really chick-and-egg it)is a really wicked sense of discipline and a determined work pace, so I stay on task, I write regularly and I can write just about anywhere under nearly any conditions. If I have a notepad and a pen, I'm pretty much good to go. I tend to write longhand and revise as I key in. My grandmother was a typing teacher, so keyboarding came early. I'm a very fast typist...not Charlie Stella fast, but in that ballpark. I love the act of writing fiction, so it's not a mood issue for me. I just let fly.
AJ: Will Fitzgerald ever make an appearance in a Lassiter novel? I gleaned from your interview with Ellroy (in the forthcoming Rogue Males) that Hemingway and Fitzgerald once had some wordsare you tempted to get Hector involved in that?
CM: With the possible exception of perhaps one day writing a World War II Hector novel as several have suggested to me, I envisioned and wrote seven Hector novels. In two of them it's implied Hector and Scott were on some kind of terms, but it never really goes farther than that.
The Fitzgerald/Hemingway dynamic is a pretty rough arc for a "friendship" and pretty telling of Hem's tendency to screw up relationships with other writers. Fitzgerald really helped Hemingway a great deal, pulling Hem away from a lackluster publisher and situating him at Scribners, suggesting some key and correct cuts to the rather sorry original opening of The Sun Also Rises, then just getting taken apart a piece-at-a-time as Hem's star rose and Fitzgerald's crashed. It's hard to imagine now, but Fitzgerald's stuff was all but out of print when he died and he went to his grave thinking himself a writing failure...an also-ran in terms of the literary long game.
AJ: I know you've completed all seven novels in the Hector "cycle"you did it in a relatively short time, didn't you? Is it difficult, going back to incorporate editorial input in book 2 or 3, knowing where Hector goes in books 5, 6, and 7? Have you found yourself changing things in later books, to match with changes you're making in the ms currently being published?
CM: I wrote the books in the way I figure Hector would have written them (in a sense, these are Hector's own books, particularly as some are related in first-person). That is to say, I wrote them fast and then I went back and took the time to polish them as a unit.
To your main point, yes, it's kind of a nightmare editing the books as the series progresses, because as you know as few others would, time is used in a very unusual way in this series. In a typical, linear series, this wouldn't be much of an issue at all. But Head Games and Toros have set up certain biographical mileposts that are now a part of Hector's timeline, and my notion has been for Hector to be depicted as his younger self in the latter books. So what you end up doing is editing current books with an eye toward later books that take place before the books appearing first in print. Then you have to square up with what's out there in HG and T&T. It's a bit like three-dimensional chess. The good news for me is that books 5 and 6 are set in 1924 and '25, and I've not touched on any of that part of his life, other than a mention of the key woman in Hector's past that occurs in this novel to be published in winter of 2010.
AJ: You're the first author we've had at Bleak House to publish with us and move up to the Big Leagues. I know that Ben is particularly proud to have published the first two Hectorsand I know you know how I feel about having had the great privilege of working with you. What's it like, now, having moved on? (Do you miss me?) :)
CM: Bleak House put me and Hector on the map and I know better than anyone the value and importance of independent publishers who are not risk averse. It's a debt I can't repay and you and Ben have been terrific friends and associates.
Going deeper, the relationship of editor and writer, I think, is one of the most fascinating and underexplored aspects of publishing, at least for me. Editors can have as little or as much to do with the book and its presentation and flow as they choose to have and personal editing styles vary greatly. You can play a lot of compelling what-if games regarding how the Lassiter series might have gone into the market with someone other than you editing me for those first two crucial books. You supported me in doing a couple of fairly radical things I think some other editors might well have balked at allowing. Without going too far into spoiler country, one of those things was the last third of Head Games, which may yet not be all that it appears (more on that in book three). The other being the switch from firstto third-person voices between books one and two. That toggling of voice carries on through subsequent editions in the series and point-of-view is its own important element in this unfolding cycle. The fact is we pretty much set a template with Head Games and Toros & Torsos and because of the attention and reception they've received I think the two of us have defined the tone and attitude that will endure throughout subsequent books.
Of course we're editing the interview book, Rogue Males, right now, so I haven't really made any break in that sense. I know you have an interest in YA fictionmaybe we need to discuss a "Lil' Lassiter" series set in 1908-1916 Texas. We could start with young Hector inheriting his .73 Peacemaker from a dying Ambrose Bierce somewhere along the border...
AJ: Do you anticipate doing a touror more frequent signingsnow that you're with a larger publisher? Are you working on your ornery, eye-patched, enigmatic author persona?
CM: Likely I'll do a little more roadwork now that I've put my foot in the Bouchercon waters, etc. The books are also going to start appearing overseas soon...in France, Japan, Russia and elsewhere. As to that authorial persona...that's actually a critical theme of the third Lassiter, Print the Legend, which explores how Hemingway's public persona eventually destroyed him, and Hector coming to grips with the possibility he could he headed down a similar sad path unless he makes some kind of radical course correctiona theme that will follow through into the fourth novel which takes place in 1958 Nashville. I actually think about persona a lot. And I get so many questions pertaining to how much of Hector is in me and visa-versa I almost wonder if I maybe hurt things by going out there to meet readers.
AJ: How does it feel to have Head Games as an audiobookand a forthcoming graphic novel?
CM: I was pretty fortunate in the sense that I was able to get the actor I wanted to read Head Games to be the voice of Hector Lassitera very talented guy named Tom Stechschulte who also does a hell of a Bud Fiske, a great Orson Welles and a very sly take on George W. Toros & Torsos and Print the Legend are also going to be available from Recorded Books, so I'm looking forward to Tom's take on Hem and John Huston, among others. Now as I reread or edit these forthcoming books, I do hear Hector in Tom's voice, which is a bit surreal.
Having put that voice to Hector, I also wrote the script for the graphic novel of Head Games and have the rare opportunity to kind of set up Hector's visualization in that sense, as well. It's been strange to have people read Head Games and suggest their own "perfect" actors for the part...everyone from Willie Nelson to Tommy Lee Jones to Harrison Ford. I was so thrown by some of those suggestions I've increasingly been forcing my own mind's-eye take on Hector into the subsequent novels to try and correct some of that. I see Hector as more old Hollywood and really always envisioned him as more of a William Holden type.
AJ: Was the release of your second novel, Toros & Torsos, anticlimactic, as compared with the release of your debut, Head Games? I guess what I'm really getting after here is if the process gets any less exciting as you experience it again ... or is it still special the second time?
CM: I've put that same question to a lot of writers who have dozens of books behind them and the ones I think are real craftsman who love the written word say it never changes for them and I believe them. You never know how a book will be received, so that element never goes away, either.
I've spent years trying to break in and stubbornly focused on the primary act of getting a novel in print and I love books as artifacts. And as you know, perhaps to a painful extent, I really get into the design and presentation of a book as deeply as I'm allowed and have very definite ideas about fonts, colors, etc. Hell, I look at kerning... I love the process and so far have found each cycle from idea through draft to finished book to have its own sense of rhythm and arc. This isn't ever going to get old or pat for me. Not ever. Books can endure...you can't say that of much else in this world.
AJ: We share a love of the film Night of the Hunter. Ever thought of writing a standalonethe adventures of an adult John Harper? Maybe with "DON'T" and "TELL" tattooed on his knuckles?
That's perfect. Davis Grubb's from the Moundsville/Wheeling area of West Virginia and I made a road trip there a few years back to kind of look around his stomping ground because all his novels are set in that same place as Night of the Hunterhis fictional area called Cresap's Landing. Oddly enough, there was a sign for an attorney there named "Harry Powell." Have to wonder if he inspired the name for the preacher in that book.
I watched the movie again, but with my daughters for the first time not too long ago, and now our eight-year-old, Yeats, goes around acting out Robert Mitchum's hand-wrestling scene with himself and imitating his voice bellowing, "Hot dog! It's love that's a winnin'!"
AJ: Are you working on anything outside of Hector's world that you wouldn't mind talking about?
CM: Well, hearkening back to an earlier one of your questions, I'm doing a final polish on a psychological thriller about a presumed-dead author in the vein of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon who never toured, never let himself be photographed and what happens when a guy is approached to write his biography. It's set very much in the publishing world of now, and touches on all those crazy things about marketing/self-promotion that make me look askance on a lot of peersincessant blogging and authors spending all their time Super-Poking one another on Facebook and frittering away time on Twitter. All this stuff that does nothing to contribute to the words on the page and in fact probably detracts from what ends up there.
Right now I'm also working on something that's more of a magic-realist/noir piece... Crime fiction pressed toward the darker boundaries, but that's about all I can say about that one. I'm a firm believer in the proverb the book you talk about is the book you never write.
AJ: Ok, last question. One true sentence: It's easier to write than ...
CM: ...to deny the compulsion.
Alison Janssen is the editor of Tyrus Books and former editor of Bleak House Books. She joined Bleak House in 2003, and worked with each title the company has published since then, including three titles named as finalists in three categories of the 2007 Edgar Awards. She graduated from Vassar College, where she studied theater. As a child, Alison read extensively over a wide variety of genres and styles. Some of her favorite authors include William Faulkner, Michel Faber, and Dr. Seuss. Alison lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin. She travels often with Tyrus Books publisher Benjamin LeRoy to writing conferences. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, performing with local theater groups, and playing roller derby.