Monday, October 24, 2016

"The Legend of Joe Lee"

Imagine, dear reader, that the year is 1964, this very month of October, 52 long years ago. You are an avid fan of author John D MacDonald, a writer who has already published 46 books of fiction, 368 short stories and novellas in scores of different magazines, both pulp and slick, and who, only five short months ago introduced his first novel-length series character Travis McGee, who has already (!) appeared in four new novels. You’re perusing the magazine racks at your local newsstand (they still had them in 1964) and you spot the cover of the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. Nothing much of interest here -- a couple of attractive Spanish models dressed in red, and headlines for the various non-fiction articles therein, with a single come-on for a “complete” novel by Lee Colgate titled Oh, Be Careful! You vaguely recognize her name from a few issues of Redbook back in 1961 but you’ve never read anything by her, and you certainly don’t know that she is the Colgate toothpaste heiress. No need to drop 35-cents for this particular issue.

But you’re a John D MacDonald fan, and you’ve been one for years, so you are well aware that your favorite author has been published in this magazine before. In fact, you’ve read 17 of his shorter works here, including two -- “The Bear Trap” and “Hangover” -- which were among the best he had ever written, and 13 of his novels have been published (in shorter versions) in Cosmo. So you have been trained to look for a new JDM piece every time you visit this newsstand of yore. A peek at the table of contents tells you nothing, as no individual entries are listed, only subjects. On page 90 begins the handful of new stories that are seeing the light of day for the first time. And, sure enough, on that very page you see the byline “By John D MacDonald” under the title “Fiction” and the title of this particular entry, “The Legend of Joe Lee”.

By now you’ve come to expect anything from JDM in Cosmopolitan. You’ve read crime stories, bittersweet remembrances, romances, and, what they used to call “women’s stories.” The one thing you don’t expect -- that you would never expect -- would be a science fiction or fantasy story. Cosmopolitan’s readership, both before, then and now, was the antithesis of the sf crowd that spent their days reading Galaxy, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But here’s the thing: you don’t realize that this is a fantasy until you get to the very end of the short story. Up to that point it reads like a typically excellent John D MacDonald product, full of mood, atmosphere, characterization, and that amazingly terse style that says so much with so few words.

The point of this little reverie is to lament that fact that most of us will never have that opportunity afforded the readers of Cosmopolitan over fifty years ago. We know it’s a fantasy because it was anthologized in MacDonald’s 1978 science fiction collection Other Times, Other Worlds. And, when one reads science fiction or fantasy, especially that which takes place in a normal setting, we are always waiting for the make-believe stuff to come in -- at least that’s the way it is for me. I recall wondering just that back in 1978 when I first read the story. How neat must it have been to have been a reader in 1964 and to have been floored by how this terrific bit of fiction turned out.

This is not to say that one can’t enjoy “The Legend of Joe Lee” on its own terms, knowing full well that something impossible is going on. It is first-rate JDM, a tale of mystery, loss and regret, built around a generation of adults trying to understand and come to grips with their own teenage children, all taking place in the flat inland wetlands of south Florida. Who could ask for more?

The story is told in first person by an unnamed reporter for a Ft. Lauderdale newspaper. He has come to fictional Afaloosa County to write a human interest story to tie in with a series his paper is doing  on “the teen-age war against the square world of the adult.” He is looking over a map with two state troopers, listening as he is told the plans for that night once the sun is down and a full moon is shining. Once a month a boy from a neighboring county named Joe Lee Cuddard and his girlfriend Clarissa May Farris use an eighteen-mile stretch of county highway to drag race in the dead of night in a custom-built hot rod that can reach speeds of 120 miles per hour. The police have tried and failed several times to apprehend them but lack any kind of automobile that could keep up with the rod, which Joe Lee has named the C.M. Special, for Clarissa May. This evening the plan is to bottle up a section of the road where there is nowhere to turn off except for “the deep ditch and the black mud and the ‘gator water.” The troopers are tired of being embarrassed by this kid.

When asked why they don’t just pick up Joe Lee at home, the reporter is told that “his folks don’t know where he is, and don’t much care, him and that Farris girl he was running with, so we figure the pair of them is off in the piney woods someplace, holed up in some abandoned shack, coming out at night for kicks, making fools of us.”

While waiting for night to come the reporter fills the hours before sunset with visits to the homes of both Joe Lee and Clarissa May. Here we are treated to some of MacDonald’s best and most amazing characterization and dialogue, creating people who seem as real as you and me, echoing creations from prior novels as diverse as Deadly Welcome, The Drowner and A Flash of Green. Joe Lee’s house “was a shacky place, chickens in the dusty yard, fence sagging,” with a ancient pickup truck out back. His father, unloading cinder blocks from the back of that pickup, is stripped to the waist, “a lean, sallow man who looked undernourished and exhausted… with “pale hair and pale eyes and a narrow mouth.”

“That boy warn’t no help to me, Mister, but he warn’t no trouble neither. The onliest thing on his mind was that car. I didn’t hold with it, but I didn’t put down no foot. He fixed up that old shed there to work in, and he needed something, he went out and earned up the money to buy it. They was a crowd of them around most times, helpin’ him, boys workin’, and gals watchin’. Have radios on batteries set around so as they could twisty dance while them boys hammered that metal out. When I worked around and overheard ‘em, I swear I couldn’t make out more’n one word from seven. What he done was take that car to some national show, for prizes and such. But one day he just took off, like they do nowadays.”

The Farris home was closer to town and the reporter is able to chat with Clarissa May’s mother on the front porch while the family of six adults and a dozen children are eating dinner. She is described as “grossly fat, but with delicate features, an indication of the beauty she must have once had.”

“I can tell you, it like to broke our hearts the way Clarissa May done us. If’n I told [my husband] once, I told him a thousand times, no good would ever come of her messin’ with that Cuddard boy… You write this up nice and in it put the message her momma and daddy want her home bad, and maybe she’ll see it and come on in. You know what the Good Book says about sharper’n a sarpent’s tooth… Him nineteen and her seventeen. The young ones are going clean out of hand these times. One night racing through this county the way they do, showing off, that Cuddard boy is going to kill hisself and my child too… She was neat and good and pretty and quiet, and she had the good marks… You’re easier on a young one when there’s no way of knowing how long she could be with you. Doc Mathis, he had us taking her over to the Miami clinic. Sometimes they kept her and sometimes they didn’t, and she’d get behind in her school and then catch up fast. Many times we taken her over there. She’s got the sick blood and it takes her poorly. She should be right here, where’s help to care for her in the bad spells… When I think about her out there… poorly and all…”

That night the reporter sits in the patrol car with one of the troopers, quietly waiting for something to happen, listening to “choruses of swamp toads mingling with the whine of insects, close to my ears, looking for a biting place. A couple of times I had heard the bass throb of a ‘gator." Then, the “oncoming high-pitched snarl of high combustion.” The trooper remarks, “Hear it once and you don’t forget it.”

“... the next instant the C.M. Special went by. It was a resonant howl that stirred echoes inside the inner ear. It was a tearing, bursting rush of wind that rattled fronds and turned leaves over. It was a dark shape in moonlight, slamming by, the howl diminishing as the wind of passage died.”

The trooper gives chase, but Joe Lee is running without lights so it is impossible to tell how close they are. At the end of the eighteen mile stretch awaits a road block and nowhere to turn off. But when they arrive there they see nothing but the red flashing lights of patrol cars. They backtrack, checking every foot of the surrounding swamp to see if the C.M. Special has pulled off or crashed. Nothing.

The reporter returns to Lauderdale and, several days later, is contacted by the trooper. They have found the C.M.Special, submerged in a canal off Route 27, twelve miles south of town and are preparing to bring it up out of the water. He rushes to the scene and is astonished to see “at least a hundred cars pulled off on both sides of the highway.” As a wrecker is preparing its winch, he looks around and takes in the strange scene.

Only then did I realize the strangeness of most of the waiting vehicles. The cars were from a half-dozen counties, according to the tag numbers. There were many big, gaudy, curious monsters not unlike the C.M. Special in basic layout, but quite different in design. They seemed like a visitation of Martian beasts. There were dirty fenderless sedans from the thirties with modern power plants under the hoods, and big rude racing numbers painted on the side doors. There were other cars which looked normal at first glance, but then seemed to squat oddly low, lines clean and sleek where the Detroit chrome had been taken off, the holes leaded up. The cars and the kids were of another race. Groups of them formed, broke up and re-formed. Radios brought in a dozen stations… They wandered from car to car. It had a strange carnival flavor, yet more ceremonial…

The winch whines, the C.M. Special emerges from the dark water, and inside, behind a smeared window, were “two huddled masses, the slumped boy and girl, side by side, still belted in…”

Of course, this isn’t the end, despite MacDonald’s neat red herring of referring to the hot rods as “Martian beasts.” And while this great short story works on many levels, it’s basically about the broken relationship between a new generation and their parents, as can be attested by the sections quoted above. It’s a theme that MacDonald explored in many of his works, both short and novel length. In 1964 it was cars, and a few years later it would be sex and drugs, covered in many different works such as “The Willow Pool,” “He Was Always a Nice Boy,” and the Travis McGee novel Dress Her in Indigo.

“The Legend of Joe Lee” was anthologized twice before appearing in Other Times, Other Worlds. In 1965 it appeared in The Year’s Best SF: 10th Annual Edition, edited by author and JDM fan Judith Merril. A paperback edition of this collection was published a year later. In 1969 the story was included in another kind of anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Month of Mystery. The paperback edition of this work was published under a different title, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Terror Time: More Tales from a Month of Mystery. A British edition of this paperback was published by Pan in 1973 as A Month of Mystery: Book Two.

Our imaginary reader in 1964 would have certainly found “The Legend of Joe Lee” worth every one of the thirty-five cents that issue of Cosmopolitan cost them, but he or she would have been disappointed on a different front. There is no artwork to accompany the story. In fact, except for the novel Oh, Be Careful!, none of the short stories in this issue are illustrated. By 1964 story illustration, along with the fiction it depicted, was becoming more and more passé, and illustrators were finding it harder to find work in the magazines of the times. Just as fiction became an afterthought, even in Cosmopolitan, which was once the premier fiction periodical of its time, so too did illustrations, replaced by photography and, sometimes -- as in the case of this issue -- nothing at all.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Taxpayers' Research Bureau

In 1945 when John D MacDonald decided to take a chance on earning a living as a writer of fiction, he did so using the thinnest of rationales: a four-month severance package from the Army, a single sale of a short story to a fiction magazine, and a lifelong desire to be an author. Returning to his home in Utica, New York in September, he began writing in early October, famously churning out 800,000 words of unsellable stories. His newfound occupation raised the eyebrows of friends and family, who no doubt thought him emotionally damaged from his two and a half years of war overseas (“a readjustment case” was the term MacDonald used), and his inability to sell a second story may have even caused doubts to cross his own mind. But his wife Dorothy believed in him and, five months later in February 1946 he finally received an acceptance letter for that second work and his course in life was set.

Yet at that point in his writing career he had a grand total of $65.00 to show for all of his hard work, and his terminal pay from the Army was coming to an end. The family lived cheaply in a rent-controlled apartment ($23.50 a month) but had run up a $300 credit balance at the local grocers, and it wasn’t as if that second sale had opened up the floodgates to the publishing world. Sales happened, but they were still slow and uncertain, so MacDonald panicked. Here are his own words from The House Guests, the “cat book” that is the closest thing we have to an actual autobiography.

Along in April and May of 1946, though I had begun to sell some stories here and there, they were to pulp magazines, and the money was small. I began to think we might not make it.

I found a job as Executive Director of the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau in Utica. I made that jump  a little too nervously and hastily. I spent every spare moment writing. Through the summer the stories began to sell at a greater rate and to better markets. We paid off our debts and began to build up a little surplus. By autumn I was still stuck with that job, and with an unwritten obligation to keep it for a year. There we were with the funds and mobility to evade the misery of a Utica winter. I resigned on the basis of need to take Dorothy to a warmer climate. It was not entirely a pretext. She could have endured the winter, but she does not take cold well, and it was certain that she would spend a good portion of the winter in poor health. We arranged to go to Taos.

I’ve always wondered: what exactly was the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau and what did JDM do for them? MacDonald was obviously hired based on his Harvard MBA and experience in military procurement, and his rank on leaving the Army (lieutenant colonel) probably didn’t hurt. A bit of research into this period of MacDonald’s life paints a somewhat more interesting picture than that of the author sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day, scheming of ways he could quit.

One could be forgiven for thinking -- based on its title -- that the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau was a part of the municipal government of Utica, but that was not the case. Founded in October 1934, the Bureau was a joint creation of the the Chamber of Commerce and the Oneida County Taxpayers’ League, and its mission was to “conduct studies of local and county governmental operations, with the view of bringing about a reduction in costs without loss of service.” And although the Bureau was funded by these two founding entities, it operated with total autonomy, consisting of a president, vice president, secretary and treasure and, initially, a hired expert on governmental matters as a director. As was reported at the time, the intention was to “fill a long-felt want in the impartial and independent study of local governments and [to supply] taxpayers and others with correct data regarding local public affairs.” Its offices were housed in the Chamber of Commerce building, located on Elizabeth Street, just east of Genesee.

Both Utica newspapers of the period carried the story of MacDonald’s hiring, revealing that it occurred earlier that he remembered in The House Guests. The March 22 edition of the Utica Daily Press carried the following article, complete with bio and a photo of a very young-looking JDM:

Appointment of John D MacDonald, 1109 State [Street], as executive secretary of the Taxpayers Research Bureau, was announced yesterday by Richard E Hatfield, chairman of the board of directors. He succeeds Floyd W Fenner, who resigned several months ago to devote his time to his business interests.

MacDonald, son of E A MacDonald, 9 Beverly [Place], vice president of Savage Arms Corporation, was discharged from the Army in January with the rank of lieutenant colonel after more than five years of service.

He was called up as a reserve officer in 1940.

After two and a half years of industrial procurement work of the Rochester Ordnance District he was sent to the China-Burma-India theater, where he remained until late last year.

From August 1944 to July 1945 Colonel MacDonald served in the CBI theater with operatives from Colonel Donovan's Office of Strategic Services that gathered information behind enemy lines for the combined chiefs of staff.

Born in Sharon, PA, MacDonald attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years, then entered Syracuse University where he received a bachelor of science degree from the College of Business Administration in 1937. He then entered the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration where he received a master's' degree in business administration in 1938.

Prior to entering the Army, he was employed in Syracuse and Northern New York by the Commercial Investment Trust Company, Inc. His wife is the former Dorothy Prentiss of Poland. They have one son.

As Executive Secretary of the Research Bureau it will be MacDonald's job to obtain factual data about city and county government operations, analyze and present it to the bureau directors for public distribution. A monthly bulletin is being planned to distribute this information among members and other interested persons.

Offices of the bureau, formerly located on the second floor of the Chamber of Commerce Building, are now on the first floor in the section formerly occupied by the Industrial Association of Utica.

Note how MacDonald fudged his résumé to account for the missing months of 1945, claiming that his discharge took place in January 1946 rather than September 1945. Also left unsaid was the fact that his employment with the Commercial Investment Trust Company ended with him getting fired. Not something anyone ever puts on a resume, to be sure.

So, what did he do all day? He obviously worked at his job, however much he surely hated having to do it, and it must have become more and more onerous as the short stories started selling and the checks rolled in. A few weeks after MacDonald passed away in 1986 a letter to the editor was published in the January 4, 1987 edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch, written by one Mason C Taylor, a lifelong resident of the city. Taylor was a reporter for the Daily Press at the time MacDonald served on the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau, and his recollections are both interesting and amusing.

John D MacDonald, the award-winning mystery writer who died last Sunday in Milwaukee, began his professional writing career in the old Chamber of Commerce building that was on Elizabeth Street just east of Grace Church.

He had returned after World War II to Utica where his father was works manager at the Savage Arms Company (where Charlestown is now located) and had taken a temporary job as director of the Municipal Research Bureau, a Chamber of Commerce subsidiary.

I was then City Hall reporter for the Daily Press and the Chamber of Commerce was part of my beat and I called there every afternoon. I remember stopping in John's office one afternoon to find him hard at work on a yellow legal pad at a desk cluttered with pulp magazines. He told me he had decided to try his hand at fiction writing and was developing a formula.

He had served in the Burma theater with the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA. Due to security he was unable to tell his wife about his work, but when the war ended, he said, he wrote her a long letter telling about some of his experiences.

From his letter his wife concocted a story, he told me, which, as I recall, she sold to Short Story Magazine.

John's research bureau duties were not arduous and he had plenty of time to develop his formula. He did that by determining the mean percentage of action, dialogue, description, characters in the best of those pulp magazine stories.

Using that formula, he sold his very first story to Street & Smith's detective magazine, as I recall. He sold several more during the several months he was at the research bureau. He later refined his formula to become one of the nation's foremost mystery writers, chiefly for his Travis McGee series.He was very personable, good company and I always intended to renew our friendship when he summered at Piseco Lake, It turned out to be one of those things you always plan to do but never get around to, until it is too late.

This recollection was written 40 years after it happened, so Taylor can be forgiven for his many inaccuracies -- at least for the ones we can document. And who is to say that the picture of an ex-Army officer trying to puzzle out the form of the successful pulp story wasn’t the one MacDonald himself was trying to put up for Taylor and everyone else outside of his immediate family? For just as he had fudged the timing of his discharge, so too was it likely that he wasn’t very proud of having papered the walls of his home office with rejection slips after four months of grueling work and wouldn’t have wanted others to know about it. Still, the image of JDM working on a story formula behind a stack of pulp magazines while being paid to do something else is a bit of a departure from the standard image one has of the author.

MacDonald’s recollection of his ultimate departure from his position at the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau is also at odds with historical records. He stated that “By autumn I was still stuck with that job, and with an unwritten obligation to keep it for a year.” This implies that he stuck with the job until late September or early October before resigning, but that was not the case. His resignation made the local papers, and it was reported in the June 2nd issue of the Observer Dispatch:

John D MacDonald, 1109 State, executive secretary of the Taxpayers' Research Bureau since the first of the year, announced his resignation yesterday because of illness in his family.

MacDonald said the resignation would be effective this fall when it was believed a man trained in statistical research could be obtained to replace him.

During his term as secretary, MacDonald said he has obtained factual data about city and county government operations which he is in the process of analysing for presentation to the bureau's executive board, headed by Richard E Hatfield. Before he relinquishes his position he plans to make a series of reports on various phases of both city and county government.

MacDonald came to his present position early this year after more than five years service with the Army. He was discharged in January with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He had spent two and a half years in industrial procurement work for the Rochester Ordnance District and then served in the China-Burma-India theater, where he remained until last year.

A native of Sharon, Pa., he attended the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, and Harvard School of Business Administration.

Before entering the Army, Colonel MacDonald was employed in Syracuse and Northern New York by the Commercial Investment Trust Company, Inc. His wife is the former Dorothy Prentiss of Poland. They have one son.

Note how this account repeats the assertion that MacDonald was discharged in January, when this very same newspaper had reported the event in an October issue from the previous year. And, if this report is to be believed, MacDonald asserted that there was an “illness” in the family: a bit more definitive than a “pretext”.  And the dating of this report draws a specific timeline for MacDonald’s last-ever salaried job: he lasted two whole months before deciding to resign, although he agreed to stay on until the fall.

Babette Rosmond
A review of MacDonald’s publishing history for 1946 is revealing, showing just how precarious his financial condition must have been. Had it not been for Babette Rosmond, the editor of Doc Savage and The Shadow, and who was the first person in the publishing world to show real interest in developing MacDonald’s obvious talents, he may have had to put in his full year with the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau.

  • January: one story published, no payment.
  • February: one story published, no payment.
  • March: no stories published.
  • April: no stories published.
  • May: one story published (Detective Tales)
  • June: two stories published (Doc Savage, Short Stories)
  • July: three stories published (Dime Mystery, Short Stories, Story: "Interlude in India, his first sale, for which he had already been paid.)
  • August: one story published (Doc Savage)
  • September: one story published (The Shadow)
  • October: three stories published (Dime Detective, Mammoth Mystery, Doc Savage)
  • November: five stories published (Doc Savage (3), The Shadow, Short Stories)
  • December: five stories published (The Shadow (3), Doc Savage, Esquire)

MacDonald’s short stint with the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau accomplished its mission, providing funds to get the struggling writer out of debt and on his way to earning a living doing what he wanted to do. It also provided him experience in the workings of municipal government, which eventually became fodder for his fiction. A corrupt city government provided the background for his 1947 short story “Oh, Give Me a Hearse!” written about a year after his resignation. In 1951 the management of the city of Deron (probably a stand-in for Utica or Syracuse) is put under the care of a city manager in his novel Judge Me Not, and the protagonist, Teed Morrow, actually has employment by a taxpayers’ research bureau on his résumé. Even as late as 1982 MacDonald still displayed an interest and precient knowledge of the nuts and bolts of municipal government, especially those of the counties and cities in the rust belt, when he has Meyer pontificate on the subject in Cinnamon Skin.

He and Travis have travelled to Utica seeking the sister of Cody Pittler and they spend their first evening there enjoying dinner at a restaurant called Grimaldi’s, which, incidentally, was a real place, a longtime Utica landmark located a few blocks from the chamber of commerce building where MacDonald worked. (It closed in 2012.). Travis takes note of a large group of local government types at the bar.

I looked around at the patrons of the restaurant and the bar. Politicos, many of them
young. Lawyers and elected officials and appointees. Some with their wives or girls. It looked to
me as if a lot of the city and county business might be transacted right here. They had a lot of
energy, these Italianate young men, a feverish gregariousness. I wondered aloud why they
seemed so frantic about having a good time.

Meyer studied the question and finally said, "It's energy without a productive outlet, I
think. Most of these Mohawk Valley cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy,
Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they made an industry out of government. State
office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory
boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups… thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state, and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device, to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone stale, and as the light wanes, they dance."

Wonderful writing and amazing understanding, given birth in a long-ago time in the author’s life.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Maybe You Should Write a Book

In 1977 ex-Fawcett Publications editor Ralph Daigh wrote a how-to book on writing, titled Maybe You Should Write a Book. The first sentence on the front flap of the dust jacket provides his thesis:

If you have ever said, “Someday I am going to write a book,” and have not yet done so, or have written a book as yet unpublished, this is the book for you.

The first twelve chapters were written by Daigh and contain many fascinating inside-baseball facts and tales of the publishing business. The following eighteen chapters were individual essays written by some of the then-famous authors of the period: names such as James Michener, Joyce Carol Oates, Norah Lofts and Louis L’Amour. And, of course, John D MacDonald, who provided many great titles for Daigh back in the early 1950’s. MacDonald’s piece, which was titled “An Author With a Fan Club,” contains JDM’s standard biography, told by himself, which is revealing in and of itself as it contains a few bits of info revealed in few other places. (Such as the revelation that his writing predated “Interlude in India.”) The balance of the essay is an interesting nuts-and-bolts description of how he writes, where he gets his ideas, his rather drastic method of revision, and his approach to both realism and illusion. Long out of print, Maybe You Should Write a Book probably doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance of ever being reprinted, so I’ve taken the liberty and transcribed MacDonald’s entry in its entirety. It’s quite educational.

Writing is my trade and my joy and my despair, depending on how well or how poorly it seems to be going at any given moment.

I cannot imagine ever doing anything else.

Yet I had no idea of actually being a writer until I was twenty-nine. I read everything I could reach from the day I learned to read. I thought that to be an author would be the best thing anyone could ever do -- to put down the words for others to read. But I did not think it could ever be me. Not ever.

I wrote things, but it was as if I were imitating a writer, and thus it was a secret vice. It was not until almost half a life had passed that I realized all writers who share this same compulsion, this same dream, have the hidden, guilty suspicion that they are merely giving an imitation of what they hope to become.

Because I had an inner listlessness about what I would do with my life, I responded easily to what my father hoped I would do. I went to the Wharton School of Finance and dropped out after almost two years, worked at small weird jobs in New York City, finally reentered college at Syracuse, got a B.S. in Business Administration, married Dorothy, went to Harvard Business School, received an M.B.A. in Business Administration, sired a son, went to work, got fired with alarming frequency, went into the army for five-and-a-half years and came back from overseas with three months' accumulated leave and a terminal promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.

The army had cured me, or partially cured me, of that malady which had gotten me fired so regularly -- a virulent case of Boca Grande (Big Mouth) -- and in the normal course of events I would have fitted myself back into the business world, carefully and diligently, yet without joy.

But great luck rescued me from my own blindness about myself. Luck and Dorothy. During the last of my two-and-a-half years overseas, I was with OSS in the China-Burma-India Theater. At one point, due to the secret nature of ongoing operations, we were advised that outgoing mail was being subjected to one hundred percent censorship rather than the usual spot check, and that it would be best if no mention were made in letters of climate, foliage, health, food, friends, and so forth.

It made letters grotesquely difficult to write, and as a relief valve, I wrote a short story in longhand about some people in New Delhi, a place where I was no longer stationed. I wrote it to amuse Dorothy and to give her more of the special flavor of India than I could manage in straight exposition.

It got through, and without writing me what she was doing, she typed it in suitable form and submitted it first to Esquire, where it elicited a personalized and encouraging rejection rather than a form. Next she sent it to Story Magazine, where Whit Burnett purchased it for twenty-five dollars and, months later, published it under the title "Interlude in India."

When I was set free at Fort Dix, we had a rent-controlled apartment in Utica, New York, three months' leave, and tentative appointments my father had made for me with several corporations.

It seemed a good time to try to be a writer. Dorothy encouraged me. No one else did. During the winter of 1945-46, in four months -- October, November, December, and January -- I worked twelve and fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and completed 800,000 words of typed manuscript. In February I sold a second story after months of keeping at least thirty stories in the mail to the magazines at all times. I had papered most of my small workroom with form rejection slips, and I painted them out when at last they began to really depress me. I lost twenty pounds. Relatives and friends discussed John's "severe readjustment problems." In short-story format I wrote the equivalent of ten full-length books in four months. Motivation was so overwhelming, I compressed years of learning into a brief time. By the end of 1946 we could just barely live on the income from writing. In 1947 extreme financial pressures were eased.

I am still learning. And I still feel as if I were almost a writer. One cannot apply linear logic to erase a deep suspicion that one is an impostor.

It is the memory of the amount of work it took to learn my trade that oftentimes makes me less than tolerant with the stranger who says earnestly, as though we share something special, "You know, I've always wanted to write!"

When my mood is especially astringent, I answer, "Really! I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon." The lay person can remove a splinter from a finger and can write a nice letter to Aunt Alice.

The most common question is, "Where do you get your ideas?"

I do not know where ideas come from. I have the feeling that somewhere in the back of my head there is an ancient cauldron where all the input of the years of my life boils and bubbles, with the random bits of things seen, felt, read, heard, discussed, all tumble together in ferment, appearing and disappearing atop the dark brew.

The thing which differentiates the human brain from the computer is the talent, or knack, or quirk, which the brain has for established logical and also illogical relationships. Emotion, humor, fear, hate-all these seem to come from unlikely juxtapositions of random bits in the storage banks, or in the cauldron, or whatever you want to call it.

The contents of the cauldron are not readily accessible to me until two or more random bits clot together in some associational relationship and float to the surface. Then I can take these items out, a coagulation, and turn the lump this way and that until I see a pattern that may or may not become a story.

The other day I retrieved some information bits in strange shape and form. A man once told me how he had fabricated his qualifications and made a quantum leap -- forward or backward -- from cab driver to assistant pursor on a cruise ship, and how, by mumbling and by writing in such a way no one could read it, he had successfully covered his areas of total ignorance until he learned the job on the job,. I once saw a ship's officer get out of a cable car in American Samoa, pallid and wet and visibly shaken, perhaps because by chance he was the only passenger aboard on that six minute, gut-wrenching trip. I had read somewhere about a myna bird who lived next door to a fire house, and who learned such a persuasive imitation of the alarm bells and buzzers, he could fake out the firemen. In the thick offshore smoke of the burning Everglades a few years ago, birds landed on our small boat, some of them too near death from exhaustion to be saved.

I examined this curious clotting of four unrelated things. I know there has to be some connective -- something in my mind which makes some congruent relationship -- faking, loneliness, fright, imitation, communication.

When I perceive the relationships, then this might become a story or an incident within a story. My fallow periods occur when all the lumps I retrieve either have too apparent and simpleminded a relationship, or ones so complex they are beyond conscious perception.

After I have the idea for a novel, the idea will determine the approach and the length. A story is something happening to somebody. If the change is physical, environmental, then it is a casual and trivial story. I must qualify this by saying that there are some monstrous exceptions, such as Kafka's Metamorphosis. If the change is deep and subjective and lasting, then the story can have as much power as is within the capacities of the novelist.

Once I have the story, along with that prickling feeling of anticipation which clues me as to how well I might be able to do it, I establish a clear sense of the ending, and then I try, through trial and error, to find the most useful beginning. The right point in time to start a story is tricky. Begin too far back from the dramatic peaks and the story becomes slow and labored. Begin too close to the tensions and the pace becomes frantic. There are no rules except the subjective sense of "feel." I revise by throwing away. I might, for example, throw away thirty thousand words of a novel in first draft because it begins to feel progressively worse and beyond repair. Or I might discard the final twenty thousand of the first fifty thousand words by rereading it enough times to be able to detect the approximate arena where it began to feel wrong.

I do not plan the middle portions of a book. Once I have found a solid beginning-place, and know where it will end, I then have multiple choices of how to find my way through the thickets and jungles of the middle portion. When such portions get too far off the track because a side trail becomes too enticing, I can take out that portion and set it aside as something to read over the next time I am in the process of selecting a story to write. For me, too much preplanning destroys freshness and spoils my own fun. I do not know what each day of work will bring. I know the compass direction, but not the specific destination of each day.

Nobody ever invented a character, whether protagonist or walk-on, out of whole cloth. I have never consciously patterned any character after any specific person I know. I assemble the odds and ends of input into the people in the books, and then they become alive to me to the point where, when I attempt to manipulate them into word or deed which does not fit, the words go flat and the deeds are fumbled.

When a character is not consistent with his own patterns and habits and style, then the reader becomes all too aware of the fact that he is reading a book. The writer's hand has become visible, tugging at the strings, contriving scene and situation.

I strive for realism while knowing at all times that I can achieve the illusion of realism, not realism itself. Selectivity in description imitates reality. It shows the reader what you want him to see. If I describe a boat by saying, "Below decks she smelled of stale grease, stale urine, and old laundry," I need not mention the condition of the brightwork or running gear topside.

Yet in these shorthand techniques of realistic writing, I must be careful not to make the writing too vivid, or once again I intrude. The flamboyant overblown simile or analogy is like tapping the reader on the shoulder and saying, "Look how beautiful I'm writing, fella!"

I achieve a further illusion of realism by trying never to write about places I have never been and by researching the nuts-and-bolts details of various skills, occupations, and professions where appropriate.

A further aspect of realism is the result of the writer's attitude toward his work. I know that I am involved in entertainment, but I also know that the more entertaining a book is the more readers it will reach, and if the entertainment is built upon some solid foundations of awareness of the world, then there will be a resonance about the work which can in certain ways alter the internal climate and the outward perceptions of the reader.

The fact of a writer taking himself seriously does not make of him a "serious" writer. Yet if he has any slight feeling that in his choice of materials or choice of approach he is patronizing and deluding the readership, then the flavor of truth and purpose and reality will drain out of his work. As literary history has shown us often and forcefully, critical acclaim has far less to do with lasting acceptance than does the internal disciplines of the work itself.

As regards the area in which I have often chosen to write, I would like to quote Nicholas Freeling: "We are all murderers, we are all spies, we are all criminals, and to choose a crime as the mainspring of a book's action is only to find one of the simplest methods of focusing eyes on our life and our world."

I have explained where I think the ideas come from and what I do with them once I have them reasonably well in hand. But I have not said anything about my appraisal of my own body of work. It is to me a long, tough, satisfying process of becoming. I have more control of my materials this year than I had last year. When the control improves, one can attempt the more delicate and sinuous confrontations without the dreadful risk of descending into inadvertent parody or situational grotesqueries. I have not done a book or a story that I could not now do more effectively.

There are internal rhythms in prose which tap the subjective emotional quotient of the reader, and create awareness of the identities of the human condition on many levels. These rhythms arise from the careful and selective simplicities, not from arcane juxtapositions. The words and the phrases are the architecture and the music. The more simple, the more elegant and effective. The more complex and intricate, the more self-conscious and ineffective. I keep the learning process going by writing poetry.

I will do as many more stories as time, energy, and self-knowledge will permit. It has meant sixty hours a week at this machine for more years than I care to confess. But there is not a day that I cannot get a quick, electric feeling of joyous anticipation when I roll the white empty page into the machine. A day, a week, a month, or a half year of work may leave me without a page I can keep. But sooner or later there will be a day when the satisfaction at the end of the day matches the anticipation at the beginning.

And that's what keeps my machine running.