Sunday, May 8, 2022

King of the Paperbacks

The following brief profile of John D MacDonald was published in the Sunday newspaper supplement of the Bradenton Herald on March 31, 1974 and was ironically titled “John D MacDonald: King of the Paperbacks”. Ironic because just a few months earlier the author had published The Turquoise Lament in hardcover and would forever after (excepting a couple of short story anthologies) appear in that medium. There’s nothing new here, and although author Sally Remaley makes it appear as if she met with the author, given the short length of this piece it’s doubtful she did.

Reigning King of the Paperbacks... that's famous Sarasota author John D. MacDonald, who justifiably qualifies as that prestigious potentate and is a favorite with readers all over this country and many others.

For the undisputed ruler of Paperback Land, the prolific MacDonald, has authored pocket novels now in the hands (as well as pockets) of millions of devoted and dedicated subjects.

MacDonald, who lives the good life (when not slaving over his ever-hot typewriter, and he even enjoys that to the hilt) at his oceanside home, has a whole library of his brainchildren now in paperback print and there are always more "in the offing."

But don't ever belittle the paperback route to fame. John D. MacDonald deliberately and sagely, as it proved, chose the paperback realm over the sometimes considered more "snooty" side of the novel-writing business ... at which John D., as he is familiarly known, is an expert.

The Sarasota writer realized he could attain what he wanted most ... a big readership ... by means of the lowly and inexpensive pocket book medium,

He was smart enough to see what many other authors could not, or would not, see. The pocketbook method would bring his novels the greatest circulation, and the quickest.

It worked just as he had anticipated. Mention his name in Timbuctoo, in Trinidad, or in Paducah ... almost everyone knows who John D. MacDonald, "daddy'' of the famous Travis McGee, is.

In fact, it's almost impossible to find someone who doesn't know that John D. MacDonald is literally King of the Paperbacks. Drop in at any news stand and you'll see rows and rows of John D.'s fast-moving adventure titles, with colors in the names to help you remember which ones you've already purchased.

(John D. was the first person to use the color-key idea in publishing.)

And book store owners will tell you that many readers avidly collect John D.'s books. They don't take up much space, and they're inexpensive. Some readers couldn't afford to collect hardcover books, and wouldn't have room for the larger size in their homes."

MacDonald came home from service and read some of the current stories, decided he could write better fiction. He kept saying, “That's lousy writing. I could do better than that.''

One day his wife said, "So why don't you?"

Always one to accept a challenge, MacDonald couldn't let that one pass. He hauled out his typewriter and got busy. Editors agreed his stuff was better than they had been receiving. They bought some 500 short stories and articles from him up to 1950.

Then John D. decided to try the paperback field. It turned out to be the best decision he ever made.

He is completely in tune with paperback readers and has often remarked that "If the objective of writing is to acquire an audience, I can't think of a better place to find it."

MacDonald is also intrigued with paperback writing because of a category which he has developed to the fullest and which he sometimes terms the "why-did-it?"

Most of MacDonald's pocketbook novels are in fact this interesting type of story, in which MacDonald has become a master craftsman.

There is a difference between it and the "who-done-it." He explains it this way: "The thing I prefer about the 'why-did-it' is that the writer, instead of creating or solving problems, tries to establish why this particular chain of events came about."

MacDonald thoroughly enjoys what he's doing, for paperbacks have brought him a lovely secluded home and the opportunity to live the way he wants to live, to write what and how and when he wishes, and to enjoy his favorite hobbies, which include fishing and photography

He also likes to travel, especially all over southern and central Florida, scouting for the backgrounds he uses for his own novels while simultaneously becoming more and more knowledgeable as an environmentalist ... a subject dear to his heart.

MacDonald has a quick, brilliant mind, and talks fluently on a great many subjects ... a handy quality for a writer ... and he admits to having an excellent memory, although adding, I'm not blessed with what is known as 'total recall'."

MacDonald has a keen interest in his home community and in people. And he notes, getting back to his paperbacks, "One reason they go over so well may be that people are existing in a throwaway culture and want light, fast-moving, humorous reading. They can buy these books at low cost, then toss them away after they read them, if they want to."

The exciting thing is that very few readers toss out John D. MacDonald's paperback novels. Knock on any door, walk in, and you're likely to see some of John D's books on the shelf.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

He Comes to Us One by One and Asks Us Who We Are

Back when I first discovered the writings of John D MacDonald in late 1975, I took note of the fact that one of my then-favorite authors Kurt Vonnegut, Jr was a JDM fan, and his blurbs were included in several editions of the books. The inside book flap of MacDonald’s first hardcover McGee (Turquoise) contained a quote, and the subsequent entry in the canon (Lemon) included what would become one of the most repeated lines extolling JDM and his works: “The works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”

The quotes from both books came from a piece Vonnegut wrote in 1973 for the July 15th edition of the Chicago Tribune’s Book World supplement. It appeared as part of a major celebration of JDM, including a long essay by MacDonald champion Clarence Petersen, a checklist of all of the author’s published books, and a review of the just-released The Scarlet Ruse.

Here is the complete Vonnegut article, titled, “He Comes to Us One by One and Asks Us Who We Are.”

John D. MacDonald and I have had the same literary agent for more than 20 years. He is Max Wilkinson, a cultivated man who has been described as a lovechild of Robert E. Lee and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I talked to Max one day about the deeper reasons for the popularity of John's books—as opposed to the surface of sex and gunpowder John puts on most of his tales. I will not try to reconstruct Max's elegant sentences, but two of his key nouns were encyclopedia and archaeology.

Max said in effect that John did more research for his books than any other fiction writer, was crazy about reliable information. Slam the Big Door, for instance, ends in a head-on collision between two automobiles, a disaster most writers would describe without leaving home. But John had a long look at the accident files of the Florida State Police, at the photographs especially, and he went to Cornell University, too. Cornell was doing research on wrecks. John then wrote the most harrowing wreck in all of literature, a sort of Beethoven's Fifth for coroners and safety engineers. John's wreck has been reprinted in its entirety, incidentally, in a booklet on good and bad driving habits put out by the Army Quartermaster Corps.

Another agent friend of John's and mine, Knox Burger, had to go to a hospital one time for minor first aid, and John came along for company. John passed the time chatting with hospital employees in the corridor, finding out what their workdays were like. He was especially fascinated by a floor-sweeper, Knox recalls. That sweeper will surely appear in a MacDonald novel sooner or later, and he will just as surely behave as real hospital floor-sweepers do. Some character may even die or be detected as a murderer because he doesn't know what John bothered to find out: what real hospital floor-sweepers, hour by hour, really do.

This is beautiful.

John's latest book, The Scarlet Ruse, tells us, among other things, what the stamp-collecting business is really like-how much money can be made by collectors; how negotiable stamps are; how common fakes are, and how the faking is done; how children are encouraged to become stamp collectors in the hopes they will become big-time speculators when they grow up. And so on. It justifies once again Max Wilkinson's feeling that John's collected works constitute a delightful, un-indexed encyclopedia, an encyclopedia jazzed up by fictional characters who care desperately about the information therein.

It also justifies the use by Max of the word archaeology. Max was speaking of diggers a thousand years from now. His guess was that those archaeologists would be like our own, hungry for the feel and smell and sound and taste and sight and muscle tone of human beings in the long ago. And the itches. And the tedious duties, and so on. A fairly lucky digger would find a Britannica. But the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Most of us lead narrow, queerly specialized lives. We play intricate games for a living, usually with rules which have never been recorded. John comes to us one-by-one with his keen and owlish curiosity, asks us what the rules are. Then he builds a crime and punishment story around those rules, and our livelihoods are immortalized.

I haven't said anything about how much John writes. Not only does he get his facts right, but he is probably the most prolific writer alive, now that Simenon has thrown in the towel. In his first four months of free-lancing, John says in his autobiographical House Guests, he wrote eight hundred thousand words-late in 1945. Some freedom! Some lance!

Volcanic productivity like that can be a symptom of many things, not all of them attractive. In John's case, however, it is an expression of enthusiasm for life, something else Max might have mentioned. John depicts us as attractive enthusiasts for our often fairly ridiculous games. He likes us. So guess what? We're only human, so fair is fair. So we like John.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Some Further Adventures of MacDonald in Auctionland


John D MacDonald’s fourteenth Travis McGee novel The Scarlet Ruse was published in January 1973 and was the last paperback original in the series. Its plot revolves around stamp collecting and a dealer who is swindled out of a valuable collection in his keeping. On October 28 of that year the following article appeared on the stamp collecting page of the Chicago Tribune and was written by the paper’s Helmuth Conrad. It’s instructive in detailing how long a novel could gestate in JDM’s imagination before coming to fruition, as well as illuminating the sheer volume of research the author did on any chosen subject matter. The piece was syndicated and was picked up by several other newspapers in the country, including the Miami Herald. It was titled (in the Tribune, at least) “Some Further Adventures of MacDonald in Auctionland."

Not long ago, I urged everybody to rush out and buy The Scarlet Ruse, a new mystery novel which draws heavily on stamp speculation for its plot and is authentic down to the tiniest detail.

Afterward, I wrote to its author, John D. MacDonald. and asked him for background on how he put the book together. He was more  than gracious and sent me a 700-word reply which I will condense as best I can.
About five years ago, MacDonald spotted a newspaper article on stamp investing, and that was the genesis of the Ruse plot. "My first step (while working on other books, of course) was to read all the reference works I could find, and to subscribe to the periodicals in the field,” he said. 

"Next, I reviewed some 10 years of auction catalogs, comparing the prices realized with the catalog values in Scott, Minkus, Gibbons, etc. Then I talked to dealers and collectors."

"My next step was to subscribe to the auction catalogs of Siegel, Harmer, HarmerRooke, Wolffers, Apfelbaum, Schiff, Mozian, Robson Lowe, and Stanley Gibbons, and to write down imaginary bids on items being sold.

"After all the study and experimentation, I began placing bids and acquiring lots and putting them in the safe deposit box, after authentication by the Philatelic Foundation."

MacDonald bought fine to extremely fine copies of classics issued by the United States, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and Barbados.

Now that Ruse has been published, he is beginning to sell off his holdings. “On some items, such as a superb, never hinged block of U.S. Scott 40, I expected to receive, after auction commission, about 175 per cent of the purchase price. I would doubtless do better if I kept the items longer."

A byproduct of MacDonald's meticulous research is that he is again hooked on collecting for fun, a hobby he gave up at the age of 14.

"And I am now toying with the idea of doing a nonfiction account of my specific and detailed adventures in auctionland," MacDonald said.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

New Hero Debuts in 2 Paperbacks


The following book review was published in the May 31, 1964 edition of the Winnona [Minnesota] Daily News, the month and year that Travis McGee was introduced to the world in the first two novels of what would become a series. It was written by local columnist John R Breitlow, a man who obviously knew his JDM. It’s always interesting to read something regarding MacDonald from the pen of someone whose exposure to the author preceded the appearance of McGee, and Breitlow seems to know what he is talking about. Unfortunately he ends the piece with that tired old cant about MacDonald having much too much talent to be writing such tripe.

New Hero Debuts in 2 Paperbacks


THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE and NIGHTMARE IN PINK, by John D. MacDonald. Gold Medal Books, 144 pages each, 40 cents each. 

The world of John D. MacDonald is a limited but fascinating one. Located mainly on the east coast with Florida as its base of operations, it contains large numbers of motels, modern offices and high-rise apartments, plus a proponderance of expensive boats. It is peopled by very worldly individuals, being mainly virile heroes, sinister villains, and attractive heroines with a tendency to meet a violent end.

Few of MacDonald's works begin life in hard cover, but they are found in profusion on thousands of paperback stands. Although their specific ingredients vary in fascination and timely detail, their general pattern has a constancy not unlike the great "Chateau - bottled wines” of Bordeaux.

A literary connoisseur might object to such a comparison on the qualitative level with considerable justice, yet the comparison is apt. MacDonald fans who regularly invest small sums at the newsstands of bus depots, drug stores and hotel lobbies, know exactly what they are getting and tend to like it just that way, to judge from the volume of sales and regular appearance of new titles.

Over the years, there has been such a similarity in John D. MacDonald's heroes that he has now taken the logical step which will save him inventing a new name and background every three months - he has inaugurated a series, having settled upon the name and character of Travis McGee.

Anyone who has read more than two MacDonald books has already met McGee. He lives on a lavish houseboat which he won in a poker game. He makes a precarious living by robbing thieves for a 50 per cent commission in an aura of slightly tarnished knight - errantry. Experienced with fishpole, fists and charm, Travis McGee is generally admired by women and respected by men. Some might call him a bum and others might label him the product of his age. Both would be correct.

John D. MacDonald introduces Travis McGee to the paperback world in two volumes which appeared on newsstands almost simultaneously: The Deep Blue Good-by and Nightmare in Pink. While usually strong on titles, MacDonald appears this time to have submitted to a publisher's whim. The only apparent reason for these colorful allusions is to justify the books' front covers, tinted to match the otherwise obscure titles.

The Deep Blue Good-by finds McGee helping two pleasantly - formed highly dissimilar females who have suffered damage to both purse and pride at the hands of one Junior Allen, a sinister character with muscle, sex appeal, a large cruiser, and the hidden charm of an angered perverted cobra. The loot involves some precious stones smuggled out of the Orient in the Second World War.

This particular crusade confronts Sir T. McGee with a successful New York contractor, a Texas playboy heading for destruction, and a motley gathering of young people whose quest for kicks lands them in troubled West Indian waters. (MacDonald's opinion of the adolescent generation is even lower than they warrant, if that is possible.) Also up for consideration is the author's rather philosophical treatment of what might be called the “Bunny Syndrome," rather harsh but not unfriendly view of the modern playgirl.

Nightmare in Pink, the second of the Travis McGee series, removes the kindly boat bum from his marina and sends him to New York to help the younger sister of a permanently disabled Korean War buddy. McGee falls for the girl (MacDonald is rarely above allowing his heroes to tamper with his heroines) but for reasons unclear they decide to go separate ways.

Nightmare in Pink actually has some frightening aspects to its plot, which involves the use of neurological drugs and surgery to control some large family fortunes and eliminate anyone who stumbles onto the scheme. McGee himself barely avoids this fate and in making his escape from a "Rest Home" of fiendish design, inserts a schizoid drug into the staff coffee maker. The results would be funny, if the clinical detail wasn't quite so realistic.

These columns have previously lamented the fact that John D. MacDonald obviously chooses to grind out this sort of thing when he could be doing something better. We consider him a good writer, and wish he would hurry and make enough money from his paperback empire so that he could quit being a hack. Until that time, we will, like Ian Fleming proclaims on the cover of one of the first Travis McGee books, automatically read everything John D. MacDonald writes. Everyone, it would seem, has his weaknesses.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Travis McGee, Boatman


It might be surprising for a John D MacDonald fan to learn that Travis McGee’s 52-foot houseboat, The Busted Flush -- which plays such a prominent role in so many of the 21 novels starring the author’s series character -- has only been depicted by cover artists a handful of times. It was certainly surprising for me as I was researching this piece: I could have sworn I’d seen it more often. By my count I can find only four illustrations of the Flush on any of the various editions published in the United States prior to 1988, and I don’t think there have been any after that. All of the illustrations were inked by the great Robert McGuinness.

The houseboat’s first appearance took place with the first paperback edition of The Turquoise Lament in July 1974. It showed a well-groomed Travis McGee standing on a dock with the Flush taking up nearly every inch of the background. Now I’m no boat person but even I, at the time, could tell that this depiction of a 52’ boat was way too small to be the Flush. A few years later MacDonald’s bibliographer Walter Shine voiced the same sentiment in his JDM Bibliophile column:

"We nominate as the worst artistic depiction of any story the monstrosity of a houseboat which decorated the paperback editions of Turquoise and the second edition of Scarlet. That spindly little 28' no 'count boat no more resembles the 52' custom-built ‘decadently luxurious’ Busted Flush than Walter Shine resembles Travis D. McGee.

"Insult to injury, the Grand Rapids Special-looking furniture shown on the sundeck in Turquoise is indoor furniture, no more suitable to the Flush than a quart of Plymouth gin is to a nursing mother's breakfast.

"Worst still, there appears no place where there could be ‘topside controls.’"

As Walter states, this same version of the Flush was reused for a revised paperback edition of The Scarlet Ruse, hitting the stands in May of 1975. Again, an overly short houseboat with no topside controls.

The first paperback edition of The Dreadful Lemon Sky, published in September 1975, features an image of the Flush seen from the front, and there does appear to be -- a place for at least -- topside controls and an upper deck canopy. 

Finally, in June of 1976 Fawcett republished Bright Orange for the Shroud (its 19th printing) with what MIGHT be an image of the Flush, along with two other crafts alongside it. Being no expert on watercraft I can only say that none of them appear to be houseboats.

In 1975 an article appeared in the boating magazine Rudder written by esteemed journalist and editor of Sail Magazine, Martin A Luray, detailing John D MacDonald’s exacting expertise in all things boating, and including several passages from the McGee novels to prove it. MacDonald was interviewed for the piece and he revealed a few things I had not known about why he chose Bahia Mar as the port for the Busted Flush. Also included was an insert containing specifications for the houseboat (nowhere near as complete as Walter Shine’s multipage details in his 1987 monograph Special Confidential Report -- Subject: Travis McGee) along with an illustration of what the real Busted Flush probably looked like, “established through investigation to be the original design of the boat.” Given the author of the article and the magazine it appeared in, I’ll have to assume that this is the most accurate image of the Flush ever published -- or, at least, that I’ve ever seen.

I’ve transcribed the entire article below and included an image of the insert with the illustration afterward. To view a full screen version simply give it a mouse click.

Travis McGee, Boatman

By Martin Luray

Elsewhere in this issue is an article on liveaboards - a deeply researched intensive piece with extensive quotes from a number of boating folk who have given up life ashore for life afloat. Nowhere is mentioned, however, probably one of the most famous liveaboards of them all — a 6'4" ruggedly handsome private investigator cum "salvage expert" named Travis McGee whose home is The Busted Flush, a “barge-type houseboat' usually berthed in slip F-18 at Ft. Lauderdale's Bahia Mar.

McGee was hard to reach primarily because he doesn't exist and neither does The Busted Flush (or slip F-18 for that matter). He is the figment of author John D. MacDonald, who has written about McGee in 16 novels (the latest, The Dreadful Lemon Sky will be published in paperback by Fawcett next month) and has given his seagoing character an expertise about boats and boating that makes him totally appealing to marine buffs who also dig well-plotted detective stories that have some ring of truth. In the McGee books, all of the nomenclature is always correct. McGee describes himself as a “boat bum,” but he is [a] good seaman, expert boathandler, able at maintenance and repair of boats and engines. He has a fine eye for good lines - appreciative of beautiful vessels as well as the lovely soul-damaged women that recuperate from time to time aboard The Busted Flush as it voyages to the Keys or the Bahamas. What fantasy for you and I as we sail through the fog and murky depths of Long Island Sound.

The origins of The Busted Flush are not too obscure; it was won from a "Palm Beach sybarite" in a poker game, described briefly in the first Travis McGee epic, The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964) and later enlarged upon in The Quick Red Fox:

"I had won the craft in a long poker siege in Palm Beach. The man wanted another advance to stay in the game, this last time putting up his Brazilian mistress as collateral, under the plausible assumption that she went with the boat, but his friends saved me the delicate problem of refusal by leading him gently away from the game”

McGee is not always at slip F-18. Sometimes he is away from boating altogether in places like Chicago and Hollywood and even Speculator, N.Y. (The Quick Red Fox). Sometimes he is close to the sea with adventures in Hawaii, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. But his knowledge of boating shows up when he is aboard The Busted Flush and has her moving somewhere as in Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), where much of the action takes place in Florida waters.

McGee on anchoring:

"In the night I was awakened by the creak of the lines as The Flush was trying to go around on the tide change, swinging further each time until pushed by the breeze. I always rig two bow hooks in such a way that she shifts her weight from hook to hook when she changes end for end."

McGee gets his lines checked and then reflects on the ways of the seagoing world. "There are a lot of dead sailors who took things for granted. On a boat things go bad in sets of threes. When you pull a hook and then go hustle to get the wheels turning something will short out on you so that you go drifting, dead in the water. And that is the time when, without lights you drift right out into the ship channel, see running lights a city block apart coming down at you, run to get your big flashlight, fumble it and drop it over the side. A boat is something that never had just one thing wrong with it?”

McGee, of course, often singlehands The Flush, but on this trip he has two others on board to help him put the boat to bed for the night - this after a long expository blast about the destruction of the Everglades by human folly.

"I studied the chart and picked a spot. I went beyond Marco Pass to a wide pass named Hurricane Pass. The channel was easy to read from the topside controls. The Flush draws four feet and is heavily skegged to protect the shafts and wheels. It was low tide... the pass is so wide Roy Cannon (Island) has a sand beach. I edged north a little to get the protection of the headland which forms the north edge of the pass. At dead slow I ran the bow into the beach sand... we put out all four anchors, the two bow ones well up on the beach, wedged into the skeletal whiteness of mangrove killed by the sand which had built up. I carried the stern hooks out into the water neckdeep, wedged them in, stomped them firm. She would rest well there, lifting free with the incoming tide, settling back at the low.”

One imagines even McGee, strong as he is, being totally bushed from carrying those two Danforths into water neck-deep. But never mind, McGee survives potential hernia and shows us later how good he is at docking The Flush:

"When I balanced forward motion and downstream current, Arthur jumped to the dock with a line and I waved him on to the piling I wanted. With it fast, I cut off the engines and the flow swung the stern in. I put on a stern line and spring line. Chook asked about fenders and I saw that the rub rail would rest well against the pilings and I told her not to bother.”

So much for Travis McGee the navigator and boathandler. There is also McGee the maintenance and repair expert who supervises the rebuilding of the upper deck of The Busted Flush when it is torn apart by a bomb in The Dreadful Lemon Sky. And he is a good hand at fixing an automatic bilge pump, as he does aboard his friend Meyer's "aging cruiser John Maynard Keynes.” (A Tan and Sandy Silence, 1971):

"I got it apart again. I spun the little impeller blade and suddenly realized that maybe it turned too freely. Found the set screw would take a full turn. Tightened it back down onto the shaft. Reassembled the crummy little monster, bolted it down underwater, heaved myself out (of the bilge), sat on the edge of the hatch and had Meyer flip the switch. It started to make a nice steady wheeeeeeng, gouting dirty bilge water into the Bahia Mar yacht basin.”

When the pump turns itself off, Meyer says "Thank you very much and hooray."

As it turns out, John D. MacDonald, who I visited in Florida last spring, is no landlubber as a major national magazine mistakenly noted recently. He is a bona fide boatman who has cruised much of Florida's inland and coastal waters, the Caribbean and the Pacific. True, he owns no boat at the present, but the speedy Muñequita which appears in one of his books is based on the T-Craft I/O that was his waterborne vehicle for a number of years.

MacDonald and his wife Dorothy live on an island near Sarasota. One imagines living on a key as the ideal life of solitude for a writer, the isolated house among the mangroves, a lonely beach on which to walk and ponder. It is not like that. The island on which the MacDonalds live has slowly been taken over by developers, which accounts for McGee's wrath against real estate types and MacDonald's involvement with the local Save Our Bays movement. If there is any peace on the island, it is in the quiet cul de sac off the main highway where the MacDonald home, a large contemporary structure stands on 12 foot pilings. Oriented toward the Gulf on the west and toward another string of keys to the north, it is a house to be envious of, a proper place for a writer concerned with seagoing matters, comfortable, substantial, open to its environment. Every part of the house, in fact, is open-living room, kitchen, bedrooms on a balcony, library with a collection of current eclectic titles. Everything, that is, except MacDonald's work room which is partitioned off at one end of the house and contains his work tables, files and a research library.

At 58, with some 66 titles behind him (50 besides the Travis McGee series), MacDonald seems a person with deep feelings about the way we live which, as he says, he finds difficult to relate verbally. Like all good writers, his communicativeness is expressed in his books. A tall man with a gentle, meandering way of talking, yet known to be very firm about his principles, he is not a tough guy, or out to prove some sort of machismo like certain other detective story writers. He impresses simply as a creator of fiction in which his beliefs and whatever fantasies he may have about how we can slow down our destruction are channeled through Travis McGee.

We did a lot of chatting and when the talk got around to McGee, he said that the character came out of the marine environment in which he had lived between 1949 and 1964 when the first McGee book, The Deep Blue Goodbye appeared. Over the years he has done so much cruising to the Bahamas and Key West and Florida and Biscayne Bays that McGee's travels aboard The Busted Flush were reconstructed from memory with occasional help from charts. Instead of buying them, he'd leaf through them at one of the local chandleries.

About the choice of Bahia Mar as McGee's home port, MacDonald said, "We knew Bahia Mar from having stayed at Pier 66. We used to stay there when the weather was too bad to go across to the Bahamas. But Pier 66 was too glossy for McGee, he was better suited to be across the way among the liveaboards at Bahia Mar. His boat was based on one of those seagoing barges I used to see along the East Coast. I was trying to think in terms of having a place he could live on and move at the same time. Nothing static like Nero Wolfe and his orchids”

MacDonald is not a peevish man, but he has his not-too-carefully-hidden angers. The filling-in of Florida's natural estuaries. Poorly-built plastic boats. Lowering the state's water table through excessive building. Stripping the soil for potash which uses up enormous amounts of water (86 million gallons a day by one firm) not all of which is returned to the earth. REIT's -- Real Estate Investment Trusts, a condominium development system peculiar to Florida. A large national company's plant in Bradenton which puts "untold quantities of virulent, poisonous crud into the atmosphere.” Instinctively, one has to be on his side.

As I was about to leave, MacDonald pointed out a family of porpoises playing in the pass between his island and the next key. They tumbled over and over and suddenly a small one, a baby shot straight up, at least six feet above the surface. It was a rare moment. I reflected that if I waited long enough I would see them again-probably off the starboard bow of The Busted Flush as, with Trav at the helm, she heads for another rendezvous with the corrupt world of the non-boatman.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

What IS Talent?

In addition to the voluminous amounts of fiction written over his forty year career, John D MacDonald was a frequent contributor to the various writers’ magazines of his time. As early as 1950 he began submitting articles to prozines such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Publishers’ Weekly, Author’s Guild Bulletin, and even to fanzines such as Masque and Bronze Shadows. And, of course, to the fanzine dedicated to his own writing, the JDM Bibliophile. He consistently harped on a few recurring themes that he found had formed the bedrock of his own late-in-life decision to be a writer, revealed here in two quotes reprinted by Walter Shine in his Bibliography:

“If you’re not an omnivorous reader, forget about being a writer.” -- 11 March 1959

“I will tell you what I tell everybody who wants to write -- I tell them -- forget it. There are a thousand easier ways to make a living. You have to have the nerves of a gambler, and an ego the size of Mt. Washington, and enough energy to take you through about 500 seventy and eighty hour weeks in a row without a break, without getting sick or beat down. Forget it, you won’t make it.

“And this is my paradox. The ones who take that advice wouldn’t make it anyway.” -- Letter, 11 December 1965

Not included in the above are what he felt were the skills necessary for a writer to write well, to be able to communicate something more than just the words on the page. Above all he cited the need for an innate sense of awareness on the part of the person writing the words. This sentiment was the subject of this early article for Writer’s Digest, published in the magazine’s October 1953 issue under the title “What IS Talent?” It is written in the form of a letter to an imaginary would-be writer from a seasoned author who, after a mere eight years in the trade, had already spent over 20,000 hours in the trenches.

What IS Talent? 

Dear Ben,

In your letter you asked me if I think you can write, if you should keep on writing. I must answer this basic question as honestly as I can, and not choose the far easier course of commenting on technical imperfections.

Your work does, of course, show many imperfections. As the author, you stride across your own sets, pointing to the characters and telling the reader what your characters are and what they are thinking. You intrude in your own stories. You show a tendency to use badly shopworn phrases: "hopelessly drunk," "dingy hotel room," "studied casualness." Those are a few I selected at random. They are usually the result of pairing words in a relationship so familiar that it has lost meaning, no matter how bright and new it was when first coined. You show a tendency to state your theme in your stories--to state the theme early in the story, and unmistakably, as though explaining to the reader what you are writing about. Theme should be implicit in the story, Ben. Not nailed down like a plank in a porch.

But these are technical flaws. When you ask, “Should I keep on writing?" I cannot answer on the basis of these technical flaws because continued writing is the one thing that will eliminate them. And you have not been writing long.

Ben, I am filling the air with all this talk because it has helped me delay saying what I must say to you. Give it up, Ben. You can painfully and eventually acquire a certain competence. But you will never be a fiction writer. Never.

I say no to you, Ben, because you have not written much or long. The loss is not great. There are many I could not tell this to because they have gone too far. They have contributed too much to a barren cause. So much that it is emotionally more therapeutic for them to continue than to stop.

Now, having said you should stop, I must tell you why.

What do I know about you? You are highly competitive, reasonably well educated, articulate, socially adjusted, happily married.

Why can't you write?

Because you do not have the one basic tool of the writer, the painter, the creative musician, the sculptor. I call that tool interrogative awareness. As a novice writer without that, you are as handicapped as a color-blind artist.

Perhaps I can best explain it to you by telling you about the work of a young painter I met in Sarasota over a year ago. When I first looked at his work it was almost completely meaningless to me. Yet I knew he was sincere, that each painting he did expressed an interaction between him and his environment and was, in effect, a portion of his continuing comment on his known world.

I borrowed one painting. One day I began to find a few reference points between his known world and my own, and those reference points served as clues, much in the way archeologists untangle an unknown language starting with a few known symbols. Then it began to come clear to me what he was attempting, and what he saw, and I had that familiar and exciting sensation of having my mind twisted, and stretched, and wrenched into an outlook I had not previously had. It was an emotional experience for me. Sharing his eyes for a time, I was able to see my own known world in a slightly different light. He had, through his vision, added a new dimension to my vision.

To oversimplify a bit, what he had done, in the iconoclasm of all good creative art, was disregard everything he had been told to believe. And he had started from the bedrock of his own senses and builded a world that, for a time, was beyond my interpretive ability. But once I could see what he was doing, then something was done to and for me.

Now let us take something different in degree, not in kind. Take a single phrase from Raymond Chandler. “Old men with faces like lost battles.” Do you see how, for a space of a few seconds, that phrase seems to stretch your mind? It is pleasure-giving.

We say it is apt. We say it is original. Yes, but beyond that it is something that can be produced only through a continual questioning awareness of environment.

You, Ben, by a completely cold and artificial process, can manufacture a striking phrase merely by juxtaposing two words in a grotesque relationship. But it would be a process. It would not be the result of your own awareness, because you are not truly aware.

When I read your stories, I am given a view of a very trite and ordinary and pedestrian world. That is the world you accept. You do not question it. Your mind does not put things into relationships that are unique to you. You automatically select the very relationships between things and persons and ideas that would be selected by fifty million other Americans. And when I read, I get no pleasure out of averages. I want a new view of the world.

Your words do not make me feel good. They make me feel tired. Because they are invariably predictable. And that, perhaps, is why we talk of the element of surprise in art. There is no individual stamp on your work because of this basic lack of interrogative awareness. There is no sentence there which could not have come out of any freshman English course. You are grammatical. You spell correctly. But there are no images to please me.

You are not aware.

I will tell you what my own awareness means to me throughout every day. It is something continually going on in my head. And I am certain it is not going on in yours. I am not "better” than you are. This is not "better" or "worse" or "smarter” or "dumber.” I'm just different. Because I function this way, I can write. And because you don't, I don't think you can. I wish what goes on in my head were more wild and wonderful. I would be a better writer for it, a better artist. The limitation in the art is generally a limitation in awareness.

It is getting cool these evenings. I chop down a birch stub. The base is solid. The top is so far gone I can crumble it in my hands. Woodpeckers have made many holes. It stood high. I hold the piece they were on. Their country, now down on my level. And then there is a kind of undefined excitement in my mind. I call it awareness. An excitement this time with an undertone of regret. As if in bringing the stub down I also brought them down, the sharp-billed ones with ice-tong feet and clown topknots. I am sorting out sensual relationships in an illogical way, as though I brought down all the afternoon hours when the bills hammered deep after moist grubs in the rotten wood. A shifting of relationships and then that excitement is gone, and, somehow, somewhere, I have hoarded that moment and those excitements, and one day when I am unsuspecting, some portion of them will come out of my mind, go onto paper, and fit what I am saying in a way that is satisfying to me.

I finish chopping fireplace lengths. I put the ax in the pump house. A small regret. It is more satisfying to leave it in the block, canted, the blade deep. There is a look about used tools. They have the look of hands. And then new relationships begin. The way the rotten stub had the feel of birds. Tools the look of hands. And something in all of this is ominous. I cannot isolate it. It has a smell of death. I look at the dark pines for a moment. There is no wind. Everything for a few seconds has a death-stink. Then it is gone. Stored away. Usable, though never consciously.

These relationships, these games that are often childish, often frightening, frequently painful, frequently gay and ludicrous, are not things that I cause to happen. That I will should happen. They have always been going on with me. The sense of excitement that comes with them seems to pin them on the back wall of memory, ready for total recall when some creative sense says they are needed here and now, at this precise point.

I am in a room with people and at some time in the evening I become, in turn, each one of them, trying to look out of their eyes. Sometimes it is muddy. Sometimes it comes wonderfully clear, and suddenly I know more about them.

This may sound to you as though I am a bit mad.

What I want to impress on you is that it goes on all the time. There is no rest from it. I cannot halt this continual drench of impressions. I would not want to. It makes me feel alive, but I wish I could slow it down because it seems to be making life go by too fast.

Now what does all this do for my writing? I have just stopped and made a computation. I have spent at least twenty thousand hours at my trade. I have achieved freedom from conscious thought about "how" I am achieving an effect in my writing and am able to concentrate instead upon the effect achieved. And, as I think of effect, out of this hidden warehouse of awareness come all the unexpected phrasings that seem right to me, that feel right in the moment of putting them down, that read right when I read them later.

And because they have come from this private warehouse, they are definitely and indisputably mine and reflect my own relationship to my environment - not an average relationship. When everything is going right, the words will dance.

Believe me, it can go very wrong. There are days when I am dulled. When nothing comes but tritenesses. A full week and at the end of it I must tear up everything because it is dull and awful. But I know that through awareness I am constantly replenishing myself, and soon things will flow again, the arrangements will be felicitous, the well will be full.

Ben, this is the thing you do not have. And without it, I am afraid that you will hurl yourself too often and too desperately against an unyielding wall. You are sober and logical and intelligent. But there are no fantasies and excitements in your mind. You accept the somber relationships you see. You look out of your eyes at a grey and blurred world. I cannot tell you how to create awareness of all the flooding torrent of life around you. There is no logic or pattern to awareness. It is the logic of the self-mutilation of a Van Gogh.

Can you truthfully say there is in you a compulsion to express yourself in a creative field, Ben? I think, rather, you have sold yourself on the image of Ben as a successful and famous author. And, in your competitiveness, you think you can attain this end through application and determination. I tell you regretfully, and with all humility, that you cannot.


John D. MacDonald.