Monday, December 9, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 30: May 13, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column, from the early years of his writing career.

War Surplus:

Two years ago the tub was being thumped to call attention to all of the vast wonderful stocks of super-thermal gimmicks and double-reversing whatchits being offered to the public out of the collapsing grab-bag of our military might.

But the stuff wasn't all dragged out of the warehouses in time to meet the peak of interest -- and thus, right now, weird and wonderful items are being offered for sale without much attention being attracted. Check with your New York paper, last or next Sunday's edition.

Did you know that you can buy:

One ten-man balsa wood raft for only $12.95, a 1000 gallon portable fuel-oil tank for $24.50, one brand-new parachute for only $5.40, two used field desks, with filing cabinets for $11.00?

Or, if you have a terrific desire for one M-3 Medium Tank, with riveted hull and turret, you ought to be able to swing a deal for less than a hundred dollars. This, for a village, makes a most inexpensive and yet durable type of war memorial. Beyond chalking couplets on the outside of it, vandals are relatively powerless.

In fact, some small villages have been bright enough to run a campaign, buy a surplus tank as a visual memorial, and use the surplus to either endow a memorial scholarship for bright youngsters, or buy books for the local library.

Such goings-on are generally considered a bit more creative than an ungovernable yen for statuary.

And there is a venerable precedent. In Jackson Square in New Orleans there is a Civil War Memorial in the form of a Confederate submarine. Yes, we said submarine.

The corroded steel hull, shaped like a fat cigar, is probably twenty feet long. It was propelled by two men pedaling madly, as on a bicycle. This mutual effort turned a stern screw. The fellow in charge steered and, when they muzzled up to a warship below the water line, he manipulated levers which detached explosives fastened to the bow and transferred them to the hull of the warship.

In its day, that little tin cigar was considered a horrible weapon of war, deadly and not quite cricket.

The measure of its success is that it had to be dredged up off the bottom to be put in the park.

Now it is a pathetic and quaint little toy, seeming, like a sea shell, to echo faintly with the shrill yip of the rebel which was heard from Manassas to Gettysburg.

Beyond a doubt those tanks placed on village greens across this country will one day be looked at in the same way that we look at the Confederate submarine. As plaintive and fragile relics of a disastrous war fought in the almost forgotten past, when the technology of warfare was in its infancy.

* * *

Conspiracy:

Here is a subject that needs airing. Adequately aired, it may mean death to a large segment of American industry.

How many millions of dollars worth of lawn mowers are sold each year? And grass seed, and weed killer and strange tools for trimming borders and such?

And for what? After all the purchases are made, and all the energy is expended, the net result is a smooth green expanse of little grass blades. Somehow we have all been deluded into thinking that grass is the only thing to have around a house. Grass is a frail and stubborn organism. An incredible amount of effort is expended to get it to grow, and then to crop it off to the required shortness. Industry could certainly devise a plastic substitute. Once installed, there would be no seeding, rolling, clipping, cutting and cursing.

Evidently the manufactures of gimmicks for the lawn subsidise the magazines which show pictures of impossibly beautiful lawns. They keep the myth going. After a full season of enormous labor, all the homeowner has to show for his efforts is an expanse of snow and the prospect of starting all over again in the Spring.

The ultimate insanity is encouraging the grass to grow, and then cutting it down before it can grow tall enough to seed itself.

It's time for revolt. All that is necessary is to have brave men in the community allow their lawns to grow into the lush, untamed beauty of a vacant lot. Pleasant little flagstone paths can wander through the tall grasses.

Once the movement is started, those who follow the leaders will see the natural beauty of wild lawns, and soon the lawn mower manufactures will feel the crimp in sales and realize at last that this incredible conspiracy they have nurtured throughout the years is at an end. They can turn to the manufacture of something practical.

Like hedge clippers.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, November 25, 2019

No Credit Cards for Travis McGee

The following article was published in Florida Accent, the Sunday supplement to the Tampa Tribune, on February 28, 1965, written by reporter Jack McClintock and titled “No Credit Cards for Travis McGee.” It was the same month that the fifth McGee novel -- A Deadly Shade of Gold -- was published (not April, as McClintock reports) and JDM obviously agreed to do the interview to push the book. There’s not much new here for the dedicated MacDonald fan, but there is an interesting bit of conversation about Ian Fleming, which amplifies JDM’s opinion of him expressed elsewhere. There’s also a photo -- taken at the old Point Crisp house -- that I’ve never seen before.

When John D. MacDonald decided to do a series after writing some 50 novels and hundreds of short fiction pieces - he knew he needed a hero he could "live with."

So he wrote two more novels, trying out two heroes, and scrapped them both. On the third try he came up with Travis McGee: boat bum, skeptic, retriever, for a price, of ill-gotten gains.

"McGee is essentially an iconoclast who feels displaced in this highly-structured society," MacDonald says of his livable protagonist, "and he's aware there probably won't be room for him in 20 years.

"At first his name was Dallas McGee, but the semantics of that name went sour."

MacDonald says that for a long time he resisted pressures to write a series. But the book market was changing and the pattern of pressures changed and MacDonald changed his mind and has published four novels built around Travis McGee. A fifth is due in April.

"I have letters in my files stating explicitly why I would never write a series,” he declares wryly. "And here I am with Travis."

McGee titles are colorful: The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, The Quick Red Fox.

"That was a cold and arbitrary decision," MacDonald confesses cheerfully. "Bookrack displays are a visual thing, and people will remember the colors and know which ones they've read."

The writer has prematurely silver hair and talks with humor and vitality. His previous novels are read all over the world — a fan club in France numbered Albert Camus and Francois Sagan among its members.

"And a lady at the University of Nice is doing her Ph.D. on MacDonald," says MacDonald.

He got into writing almost by default. After graduating from the Harvard School of Business with an M.A. degree in 1939, MacDonald, as people are expected to do, went to work.

"Then I was fired from my first four jobs," he admits without a trace of regret. "It was a case of 'bigmouth.' It wasn't that I wasn't diligent, I just kept saying the wrong things to the wrong people.

"I'm essentially inner-directed. I dislike phoniness and people who cannot evaluate themselves," he says. And he told them so.

The army beckoned in 1940 "just as I was beginning to think there was no place for me," he chuckles. "So I asked what it paid and it sounded pretty good so I went."

He wrote short stories home from overseas instead of letters, and when his wife sold one he decided to write for a living. He makes a good living at it, and cannot be fired for baiting phonies.

MacDonald has opinions and doesn't care who knows it. They're in his conversation and in his books. And sometimes in his letters.

When a critic claimed Travis McGee was an "undisguised imitation" of Ian Fleming's James Bond, MacDonald wrote him:

"Fleming was kind enough to state his admiration of my work on several occasions, and I must risk appearing tasteless and say that perhaps the most serious flaw in the Bond books is that Fleming really could not write very well."

He caught some errors in the critic's article and wrote: "I must forgive you for making the charge of imitation, as it was made without having read the books.

"May I be so forward as to commend them to you?” MacDonald added slyly.

One who has read the McGee books sees some of MacDonald in them - his ironic wit, his vitality – and, no doubt, his opinions. Travis McGee, however, is mostly just Travis McGee.

The hero says earnestly of himself, "I am wary of a lot of things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny.

"I'm also wary of all earnestness," he adds with deadly aim at his own.

McGee lives on a plush houseboat called the Busted Flush -- which refers to the way McGee came to own her and not to her lavatory facilities which include a seven-foot-long sunken bathtub in excellent working order.

He does base acts for nearly-noble motives, nearly-noble acts for greed's sake -- and talks of himself with clear-eyed and conscious irony. He's fallible, sometimes weak, sometimes strong, often ridiculous. He can be vaguely puritanical, or outstandingly vicious. He's complex, contradictory, human.

At his best, he's an ironic inspector of his own interior who laughs loudest when he's taking himself most seriously.


Monday, November 11, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 29: May 6, 1948

In the spring of 1948 British mystery author John Creasey made his first ever trip to the United States, arriving in New York on the Queen Elizabeth on April 13th. He was embarking on a multi-state speaking tour that included many chapters of the Rotary Club, of which he himself was a member. His travels took him as far as Arizona and, in early May, visited Utica, New York, where he met and spent an afternoon with rookie writer John D MacDonald.

We MacDonald fans stand in awe of the sheer quantity of JDM's output: 66 novels, 6 anthologies, 5 works of non-fiction, and nearly 400 original short stories published during his lifetime. He was a piker compared to Creasey, who, by the time he died in 1973, had written over 600 novels under 28 different pseudonyms, including crime, westerns, romance, and science fiction. He created many different series characters, the most popular of which was George Gideon of Scotland Yard, who appeared in 21 separate novels and who made it to both the big screen (John Ford’s 1958 film Gideon’s Day) and the small (the British television series Gideon’s Way).

When Creasey toured America he had written “only” 230 books, according to JDM, who took him to a minor league baseball game in Utica. He wrote about it in his weekly Clinton Courier column.

Visitor:

Last week-end we became most pleasantly involved with a visiting British gentleman making his first trip to the States. He is John Creasey, a writer of mystery novels that are published in England.

From the viewpoint of sheer productivity, he has left us with a feeling of awe and concern. He has published two hundred and thirty books, and has sold four million copies in Great Britain.

Mr. Creasey is a quiet and pleasant fellow, thirty-nine years old. And he is one of those rare people who have not lost the ability to be enthusiastic.

His constant companion is a small black notebook which is whipped out frequently and into which goes even bits and pieces of casual conversation.

In Utica he saw his first baseball game -- Blue Sox versus Binghamton -- and, as an ardent cricket fan, he said that he could see how it could become most exciting. We got all tangled up explaining the intricacies of the "hit and run” and the rule which says that the third foul is not called a strike.

We were explaining that a home run occurred when a fair ball was hit outside the playing area, and thereupon the batter hit a double into the left field stands, and the local ground rules made a liar out of us.

He seemed very dubious about the statement that the pitched ball actually does curve in the air, breaks sharply in front of the plate. And he failed to see the necessity of leather gloves to protect the hands. He said that the cricket ball is of the same construction, is thrown and hit equally hard, and the players merely get used to catching it barehanded. Hmmm!

* * *

Change of Heart:

During the past years the New York Central Railroad has seemed to consider the passengers as a highly objectionable sort of freight that must be taught humility as it is shunted from place to place. Deluxe service has been available on extra-fare trains.

But last week we treked down to New York, paid coach fare and got on something called the Upstate Special which is made up at Syracuse.

To our somewhat enormous astonishment we ended up in a luxurious observation car, sitting in a deep chair, listening to soft music, holding a tall cool glass and watching the Hudson Valley unroll.

The astonishing train, where you are not clipped for luxury service, leaves Utica every day at 9:25 a.m. and takes five hours and twenty minutes to get to New York. Since it is made up at Syracuse, there are seats available, and there will always be room.

Ed Stanley tried to talk us out of taking the train, saying that it is a local and that it makes six stops between Utica and Albany. Ed is right. It does. But on that train, it’s even pleasant to stop. It makes the trip last longer. Five hours and twenty minutes seemed hardly long enough. For the first time we began to feel that the NYC is beginning to cooperate with us in our perpetual ambition of getting something for nothing.

* * *

Hotel Service:

On this trip we obtained, for the first time, a "televised" room in a New York hotel. And, for the first time, we are anxious to have a coaxial cable to come into Utica so that television, in clear and distant image, can be available here.

As a practicing skeptic, we were not convinced by the ardent claims or the television boys. We had to be shown.

In baseball parks they don't sell the sort of seat that you get when you watch a game on the screen. To get the same view, you would have to sit on the shoulders of the umpire. Watching a boxing match, you begin to worry about whether a wild left hook will knock you off your chair. In the wrestling matches, they throw large gentlemen into your lap.

Maybe one day a television crew will focus the cameras on a scene of combat. And everybody sitting in their parlors watching the screen will get a slightly different slant on warfare. A slant that may help this battered old world find some better answers.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Who Will Kill Travis McGee?

On June 10, 1984 the Fort Lauderdale News published an article/interview on John D MacDonald in their Sunday supplement Sunshine. It was a lengthy piece, written by one Patrick Hynan, a Toronto-based journalist who, to his great credit, seems to have been a well-read fan of the author’s works.

Students of MacDonald’s work and life can recite the answers to all of the usual questions asked in these kinds of interviews, and one can tell when MacDonald is treading water, hoping to get the conversation over with so he can get back to writing. Not so here: he had invited the writer into his home and thoughtfully answered even the questions he hated getting, putting a spin on them in a way one doesn’t usually read. Here we learn where MacDonald came up with the method of killing an attack dog and that he really did originally intend for McGee to live in Sarasota. His comments on his hero presage much of the mood of the book he was about to write, The Lonely Silver Rain.

He mentioned, as he often did in later interviews, his mythical “Black” McGee novel, hidden away, half-written, ready to be published to kill off his hero. Unfortunately the editor of Sunshine jumped on this little bit of mischief and built the layout of the piece around it, titling it “Who Will Kill Travis McGee?” and repeating the tease in the table of contents and the caption underneath Tim Kantor’s portrait photo of JDM. Of course, we all now know better.

It’s a good article, and I’ve transcribed it below.

Who Will Kill Travis McGee?

He calls his tales "why-did-its," not whodunits, and likes to think of the Travis McGee novels as "folk dances." Yet the man who has written more than 70 books that have sold nearly 80 million copies around the world since he began writing them in 1950 still doesn't think of himself as a writer. "I'm somebody who has learned to imitate being a writer," he insists, "which is what Agatha Christie once admitted, and which is maybe why I sometimes feel a little schizophrenic. Maybe, I'm like two people ... there's me, John, and there's John the imitation writer over there."

The John who still thinks of himself as an imitator is John D. MacDonald, creator of the famed Travis McGee mystery-suspense series and considered by many of his peers to be the finest mystery writer in the world. But it is those rejection slips from forgotten pulp magazines back in 1946 that preoccupy him now as he sips a Bloody Mary in the large, sundrenched living room of his secluded home in Sarasota.

"I guess I must have written about 800,000 words before I got my first short story accepted," he recalls, "and for the life of me I can hardly remember what any of them were about."

Modestly overlooked by MacDonald is his short story, "Interlude in India," which was written while he was serving with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Ceylon during World War II, some time before he set out to become a professional writer. Because all mail was strictly censored, MacDonald had written and sent the story to his wife, Dorothy Prentiss, as a way of relating some of his observations of India without provoking the censor's heavy hand. "I mean, how many times can you write letters about the weather from that part of the world?” he adds with a quick grin. His wife sent the manuscript to Story magazine, which accepted it and paid $25 for it.

After the war, in 1946, there followed a stream of rejection slips while MacDonald was living with his wife and their young son in a small apartment in Utica, New York, buttressed only by a stubborn belief that, as he relates, "I could break through.” He did - four months later. "I had no idea I could be a writer before I sold that first story," he says. "I had the feeling that writers were some kind of exalted people, that they had some kind of invisible mark on them that made them different from me. If Dorothy hadn't typed up that story and put all that effort into selling it, I guess I wouldn't be sitting down here talking about all this.”

At one time during those four months while he and his family lived off his four-month army termination pay, MacDonald had as many as 30 stories circulating among pulp magazines and, as fast as they came back, new ones would be sent off. "By the time I finally began to break through a little bit, we'd used up the four months and we were about $200 in debt to our friendly grocer. Thank goodness for him!"

At 67, the six-foot-four, white-haired MacDonald has just published his latest novel, One More Sunday, about a fundamentalist Southern church that, he admits, he invented "for fun and profit.” The novel's protagonist is the Rev. John Tinker Meadows, son of the founder of the "Eternal Church of the Believer.” It concerns Meadows' hugely successful electronic ministry, and it deals with one of MacDonald's favorite themes: power corrupts. 

It is the author's first non-McGee book since his 1976 Condominium, a bestseller that did more to arouse people's consciousness about the danger of proliferating condominium development in Florida than the combined efforts of all of the state's politicians and environmentalists.

MacDonald's house lies behind tall Australian pine trees up a long gravel driveway on Siesta Key, a seven-mile-long island with dazzling salt-white beaches and row upon row of condominiums (he filed suit in 1977 to block the construction of one seven-story condo tower). Located about 200 miles northwest of Fort Lauderdale, the house is built on 12-foot pilings (sufficient to withstand the strongest hurricanes) by an inlet facing the Gulf. It is at once secluded enough to satisfy this most private of writers and Edenic enough to be the envy of all naturalists. The large house has only one bedroom --- to discourage "anyone from staying here while I'm writing.”

Stairs lead up to a wooden veranda with a 16-foot overhang that runs completely around the house. Built in 1970, it was designed by Dorothy, who is a well-known local artist.

Inside, a wide, sun-filled corridor filled with paintings and photographs leads to a large, high-ceilinged living room that looks directly on the inlet. To the left is MacDonald's study, a collage in many ways of his career and hobbies: stamp albums, a chess board, an elaborate stereo system whose speakers MacDonald built from a kit, a word processor, and a glossy beige IBM Selectric typewriter. Up a further flight of stairs is his second office with a commanding view of the inlet. Here at a large desk he writes most of his personal and business correspondence (he long ago incorporated himself). Opposite is a shelf where a model of the Miss Agnes, McGee's famous Rolls-Royce pickup truck, stands — a gift from a fervent admirer. Two sleek Abyssinian cats pace the desk, jump off, and return just as quickly with graceful leaps. MacDonald, a noted ailurophile, grins at the commotion. He once wrote a book called House Guests about two of his former cats. And he dedicated another to them: “To Roger and Geoffrey, who left their marks on the manuscript."

“I like cats because, unlike dogs, they don't stick their heads out of the car window and pant like gushing teenagers," he says when reminded about that dedication. "And they'll learn a trick or two, as we do, and then they'll repeat it a few times before they become bored with it. They're independent and they expect you to have a civilized relationship with them."

John Dann MacDonald was born on July 24, 1916, in Sharon, Pa. His father, the son of a handyman, later became vice-president and treasurer of the Savage Arms Company in Utica, N.Y. As a boy, John was as strong-willed as his father; while there was respect between the two, there was little affection. An attack of mastoiditis and scarlet fever at the age of 12 kept John in bed for a year. He then turned to what was to become one of the first of his lifelong hobbies: reading.

A year after graduating from the Utica Free Academy in 1933, MacDonald enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance in Philadelphia. He quit in his sophomore year because, he said, he had the feeling of “not knowing where the hell you are or where you are going or why.” Later, he received a degree in business administration from Syracuse University, where he met and married Dorothy Prentiss.

MacDonald also has an MBA degree from the Harvard Business School, and tried his hand at various businesses, at which he says he was “miserable.” In 1940, he gave up and joined the U.S. Army as a lieutenant.

He joined the OSS in Ceylon and India, operated behind Japanese lines and emerged as a lieutenant-colonel in 1945. Even to this day, he will not talk about what he did in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, though when he's reminded that he once wrote about how to stop a killer dog in its tracks he pauses, thinks for a moment, and admits he was taught how to do it in the OSS by a Shanghai police captain.

MacDonald wrote his first Travis McGee book, The Deep Blue Good-by, in 1964. Since then, his fictional hero has had adventures in 20 colors, including the latest, Cinnamon Skin, published last year.


A filing cabinet in MacDonald's study contains an unfinished manuscript titled A Black Border for McGee. His many fans naturally hope that this tale of McGee's demise will not be published for a long time.

McGee, the persnickety shamus who roams the continent as a self-styled "salvage expert" righting the wrongs of victims (for a fee) and avoiding the love traps of beautiful damsels, is usually to be found at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, aboard The Busted Flush, the old houseboat he won in a poker game with "four pink ones up and a stranger down.”

After 20 adventure books, McGee has achieved independence from "plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, checklists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, Junior Chambers of Commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny."

The first McGee books came about more by accident than any deep need by MacDonald to create a series. Fawcett Gold Medal Books, his long-time publisher, urgently needed a new series after one they had contracted from another writer fell through. By 1962, when Fawcett senior editor, Knox Burger, asked him to come to New York to talk about a new series, 
MacDonald had been attracting more and more impressive reviews across the country. He wasn't thrilled about the idea Burger and other Fawcett editors proposed for a series "because I didn't want to be locked into something that I would find hard to get out of if I didn't like it.”

Originally, MacDonald intended to call his protagonist Dallas McGee. However, while writing the first book, The Deep Blue Good-by, word came of President Kennedy's assassination. MacDonald was so upset by this that he changed McGee's first name to Travis, after the air force base in California. "To this day, whenever I'm driving through Texas, I think twice about going through that city," he says.

MacDonald's deep moral ire and acute social observation have been aroused by New York (Nightmare in Pink); motel cleanliness, aggressive women and renting a car (A Purple Place for Dying); the drugstore and the ruination of cities (Bright Orange for the Shroud); Chicago, the Playboy syndrome and credit cards (One Fearful Yellow Eye); and the decline of San Francisco (which used to be one of his favorite cities) in The Quick Red Fox.

While writing his first McGee book, he admits he had a feeling (“Like one of those twitches you get about something you know is about to happen") that it might be a success and that if it was, “I didn't want him in my back yard. So in the process of writing it, I moved him from the Sarasota municipal pier to Fort Lauderdale."

In 16 of the novels, McGee has been sustained, counseled and aided by his trusted friend Meyer, an economist of international reputation who came aboard the series after the fourth novel. "I had to bring in Meyer then," MacDonald says, “because there was too much interior monologue with McGee talking to himself. I had to have a foil, but I didn't want a clown.”

Meyer lives on an ugly little cruiser called The John Maynard Keynes, moored near McGee's. Through Meyer, MacDonald has probably taught more people about economics than many of America's leading economists. The author pooh-poohs this idea. "The thing about economics is that it's a fascinating science because it's the only inexact science that's so closely tied in with everybody's aspirations. You take the other inexact sciences - sociology, psychology - and you'll find that they don't have that direct, personal 'Oh, my God’ relationship that economics has to our daily lives. A lot of people who were coasting along in the '70s, thinking that all the factories were going to stay open forever, are suddenly terribly interested in economics, in finding out what's happening."

Many fans value the McGee novels for the author's ability to show how things work, as well as for the plots, dialogue and McGee's musings on man, nature, assaults on the environment, villainy and corruption. McGee has taught millions of readers how to caulk a houseboat, how fishing boats work, how geologists explore for oil, and how to travel and survive without credit cards. Additionally, he has offered more than the usual answers to readers' detective questions: how to analyze the decline and fall of Plymouth Gin, develop a near-perfect picture, spot fake rare stamps and doctor a set of books without breaking the law. McGee is a tinkerer in the grand old American tradition because his creator himself passionately wants to know how things work. In MacDonald's upstairs office is the two-volume classic How Things Work, which he calls “my bible.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., his friend and, like MacDonald, one of the original paperback writers of the 1950s, has said of him: "To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen." Dik Browne, creator of the widely-syndicated cartoon, Hagar The Horrible, is one of the regular writers and artists who meet at Merlin's restaurant in downtown Sarasota every Friday lunchtime to play a three-round game of liar's poker, a ritual jointly founded 30 years ago by MacDonald and the late MacKinlay Kantor, author of Andersonville and The Best Years of Our Lives.

Browne, who is considered one of the wits of the table, sees MacDonald about a dozen times a year. "It's astonishing what information he comes up with whenever he comes to the liars' lunch," Browne recalls on the patio of his large apartment on the outskirts of Sarasota.

"He's a fund of arcane information. While we're in the middle of a particularly tense part of the game, he'll suddenly start talking about the possibilities of finding diamonds in Bolivia, say, or, just to break your concentration, he'll casually let you know how to cure the bite of a tsetse fly, or he'll give a brief and very witty discourse on how the gold exchange works in Ghana ... He always has something to say that nobody around the table has ever thought of."

But not all of MacDonald's fans appreciate such detailed information about how things work. Some don't like McGee's musings either, as they were quick to let MacDonald know after this aside of McGee in The Empty Copper Sea:

"If I were the king of the world, I would roam my kingdom in rags, incognito, dropping fortunes onto the people who are nice with no special reason to be nice, and having my troops lop off the heads of the mean, small, embittered little bastards who try to inflate their self-esteem by stomping on yours. I would start the lopping among postoffice employees, bank tellers, bus drivers and pharmacists. I would go onto checkout clerks, bell boys, prowl-car cops, telephone operators and U.S. embassy clerks. By God, there would be so many heads rolling here and there, the world would look like a berserk bowling alley. Meyer says this shows a tad of hostility.”

MacDonald leans back in his chair and roars with laughter when reminded of this and some other McGee broodings. "I can't even begin to tell you what kind of letters I get from all sorts of people, and not just about that one. Some will say, ‘I wish you would just write down the essays, the feelings, the asides and forget about all this junk of people jumping off boats.' Or the next letter will say, ‘Oh, MacDonald, get off your soapbox! Quit boring me! I skip those places, anyway.' I learned a long time ago that the only opinion of my work that matters is mine. If I'm pleased with something, okay. Now being pleased with something doesn't mean it's the greatest piece of writing.”

He bristles for a moment at the ritual question, "Who is McGee, really?" He looks up after a while, his eyes astonishingly blue behind the glasses. He rubs his right ear and moves the hand to rest on his right knee. “One of the reasons I gave up doing most interviews a long time ago was because that was all everybody wanted to know. I'm not McGee, never have been and don't want to be."

MacDonald pauses for another few seconds. “Well, if you want to know, I see him as a damaged figure. He's dreadfully afraid of being unable to handle any total emotional commitment. It maybe was something that happened to him in his youth, maybe a family situation; he'll get close to committing himself but then withdraw from the brink because there's a coldness that he can't quite overcome — though he'd like to and he doesn't totally recognize what it is that prevents him from overcoming this.

"But aside from the pure mechanics of it, I have to make not only McGee's unwillingness to commit himself plausible, I have to hint at it in all honesty, otherwise the reader will say, 'Gee, MacDonald keeps pushing this guy around. Why doesn't he let him settle down?' McGee can't. And when he dies, there won't be many people around who will mourn him. Oh, there'll be some who would be grateful to him for his help, but he'll end unmourned, unhonored, unsung.” MacDonald indicates with a strong shake of his head that he has told you about as much as he is ever going to tell you about McGee.

Unlike the late Ross Macdonald - his only real rival in the suspense field since the deaths of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler - John D. MacDonald's novelistic interests have ranged far beyond the mystery novel. He has written everything from science fiction (Wine of the Dreamers) to horror (Soft Touch) to whimsy (The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything) to bawdy comedy (Please Write for Details) to true crime reporting of classic vintage (No Deadly Drug). The last work was based on the sensational double murder trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino, and have long been required reading at the Harvard Law School.

Back in the 1950s, original paperbacks were a new idea in publishing, reviewed infrequently by the general press and never by the serious press. For MacDonald, serious critical attention only came when he began publishing in hardbacks towards the end of the '50s. "No, it never bothered me that The New York Times or the others hadn't heard of me," he says. "After all, I wasn't reading them, either. I was too busy writing down here." But he does remember the best advice he ever got that gave him the final kick to finding his own voice. It came from the late Mike Tilden, editor of Dime Detective.

"He said, "John, you tell people too much. Stop telling them. Start showing what you mean. You say, 'He was a very ugly man.' Don't! Instead, you should have children fainting in front of him when he walks down the street. And don't say, 'She was a very clumsy woman.' Show her falling down the stairs, putting her head in the bucket.' I've never forgotten that, though it seems to take most writers too long to learn, and some don't learn it at all.”

MacDonald and his wife have had a 34-year love-hate relationship with Florida: loving it for its climate, fishing and clear pungent smells of orange blossoms coming from groves after a heavy rain on warm, humid summer mornings; hating it for its rapid unplanned growth, its greedy real estate development, its spoliation of the rivers, estuaries and beaches and, above all, for what MacDonald sees as its endless march to pave over whatever remains green. For a long time he carried on a one-man war about these issues, speaking at every opportunity and writing about them in such novels as A Flash of Green and Condominium, which has been compared to a manual for land sharks.

All of MacDonald's novels bear the stamp of prodigious research. In No Deadly Drug, he consulted hundreds of medical dictionaries and books to understand the complex medical testimony of the two long Coppolino trials. For Condominium, he spent nearly two years criss-crossing Florida to research the labyrinthine policies behind condo development.

“When I was researching Condominium, I read every trade periodical and book on land development that I could get my hands on, and I interviewed an awful lot of people around the state. There was one man I talked to, an engineer, who got absolutely livid — not at me, but just at the idea that there could be buildings sitting on a fragile barrier island where the details of their construction in the county commission building department showed them as having fantastically straight foundations; yet the buildings themselves — sitting like boxes on the sand — were, in fact, on top of completely fictitious foundations. The man got madder and madder as he was telling me this and finally he began shouting, "How can these things happen?' It was very illuminating because I knew, listening to him, that he wasn't trying to put me on. He was absolutely emotionally involved.”

MacDonald rises from his chair, shirt dampened by the humid heat of the office, and descends the stairs to the living room. In the hallway, he pauses at a photograph he had taken of Balinese dancers when he and his wife were on a South Pacific cruise. It was shot from a balcony above the swirling multi-colored dancers. It looked good enough to be in Life magazine. He seemed pleased at the admiring interest.

"I learned photography a long time ago," he says, peering more closely at the picture, “because I wanted to remember what places look like. Sometimes you forget, and it's a good thing to have pictures around that remind you what a place truly looked like.”

He never mentioned that, as a first-rate photographer, he has sold many pictures to magazines. "Oh, yeah." He looks up from the picture, a little surprised. "But that was a long time ago." He chuckles.

On the veranda, MacDonald is reminded one last time about that dreaded black border title for McGee waiting in his beige filing cabinet. He grins. "Don't forget, I do have a contract for at least two more McGee books." He continues down the stairs, the temperature in the middle 90s. "Now let's see," he says as he begins walking up the path to collect his mail, "How many more colors are there before you get to black?"

Monday, October 14, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 28: April 29, 1948

This is the 28th installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-48 newspaper column From the Top of the Hill, published in the Clinton Courier, when the MacDonalds were living in that upstate New York town. This is perhaps the longest of his entries, a column on a single subject: a review of a jazz concert performed in Clinton. I know little of jazz, and JDM seems to go out of his way to disguise the musicians in the band, but this seems to have been a performance by one of pianist's Art Hode’s various ensembles of the era.

My copy of this column was poorly photographed and there are several words missing toward the end.

Concert Notes:

Went to the Jazz concert in the gym on the Hill last Saturday night. These concert notes may sound a shade grim, so we'll preface them by saying that we felt as though we got a fair return on the buck eighty expended for a ticket.

As a second preface, we don't claim to be an expert. We have collected jazz records for a few years and we have spent a few evenings drifting along 52nd street.

The group was a little sad. And a little phoney. We have a deep aversion to drummers who wear funny hats and scream at the people like crazy. Funny hats and screaming humor belong with the name bands for use when the crowd seems jaded with dancing.

Jazz, at its very best, should be a pretty serious operation. It is our only form of music which has not been borrowed from other nations and other eras.

The hat business might have been excusable if, during the rest of the time he had carried a solid rhythm beat on his drums. But his backing-up was shaky at best, and when the other musicians, with obvious reluctance, gave him some room for self-expression, he was more concerned with noise than rhythm. In particularly poor taste was his fading in with a cow bell in a piano number. The only reasonably acceptable thing he did was the heavy beat that went along with Parenti's clarinet solo job which was so reminiscent of the Krupa-Goodman duet in "Sing, Sing, Sing."

Drum should have. been Baby Dodds, or better yet, Big Sid Catlett.

Parenti is technically, a very accomplished musician. A.shade too accomplished for jazz at its best. In other words, he seems to become so infatuated with very involved variations on his theme that he unfortunately misses the greater impact that less elusive variations would have.

Der Max is, of course, a fine, raw, earthy horn, but there seemed to a shade of condensation
in his selection of the maximum number of large, raw blasts at the expense of some of the softer and more controlled numbers he has successfully waxed.

The trombone -- despite a definite uncertainty of tone, came the closest to hitting the spirit of the thing, though the slow portions of his long solo were painful.

Old James P. made us feel bad. Age slows up everybody. The obvious result of it with James P. is a blurring and running together of the notes, particularly noticeable in his rendition of “Snowy Morning Blues.” Our record of that, cut some twelve years ago, has a crystal clarity sadly lacking in his performance the other night. Hodes displayed remarkably strange taste in playing the same number in his own fashion.

As to Arthur Hodes, he seems to have technical ability without creative ability. Particularly unpleasant was his "showmanship" in jouncing up and down and trying to beat a hole in the platform with his foot. His "Yancey Special" was almost a note for note duplicate of the Meade Lux rendition of the same one—but Meade Lux does it better.

Errol Gardner, Meade Lux, Albert Amnions and Johnny Guarnieri all have more of that indefinable creative ability.

The selection of group numbers was good, but inventiveness seemed to be oddly inhibited.

We looked around in the audience and saw many people who, we are sure, came more out of curiosity than out of any knowledge or appreciation of jazz.

We wish to inform those people that what they heard was a pale and artificial imitation of jazz. Individually, not more than two of the men who performed could be fitted into a top rank jazz combo. That could be raised to a possible three if James P. were younger.

A lot of guff is being written these days about jazz. We don't want to add to the torrent but we would like to make clear the major distinction between jazz and classical music. In classical music the notes are already scored, and the quality of the musicians must show in his rendition and phrasing of those scored notes. Classical music is, on the whole, variations on one or more themes. In jazz, the theme is there, and the listener has the only opportunity that exists in the musical arts to hear actual composition of music at the moment of composition. Under the right circumstances and in the proper mood, it can become not only pretty stuff, but intellectually stimulating.

The mood wasn't right the other night. Good jazz is something you catch when it happens to be there. It can't be planned. Six men on a platform in a gym can't make jazz. Not good jazz. And good jazz, inventive jazz, is no longer played these days in Dixieland style. It happens with numbers like "Sunny Side of the Street" or "Summertime" or "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Maybe tonight, somewhere in the country, maybe in some small Chicago spot where the lights are dim and the tables are scarred, the waiters are sullen, there is a small group playing a [...] tune, passing the melody back and forth.

Maybe one of those musicians, under the stress of his own personal problems, will take a break and put into music what he can't put into words. If he's unhappy, it will be blues If he's happy, his variations will [...] and inventive and bubbling with life.

At any rate, his sincerity will [...] the rest of the group, and if he tires, they will pick up the song and do things with it that can't be repeated.

The people in that small spot will hear jazz, and its excellence will be limited only by the technical ability of the participants. I have seen musicians, sitting [...] laugh until they wept over some gay and inspited improvisation of a soloist.

Jazz isn't a man with a funny hat.

Jazz isn't the result of [...]

Jazz is a man with a horn saying something about himself and about the world he lives in. [...] the wandering minstrel of [...]

Monday, September 30, 2019

Think You Can Write?

In 1965 the St. Petersburg Times asked seven local writers to submit pieces containing advice to would-be authors who had retired to the Suncoast. Long, long before the internet and eBooks produced a relatively inexpensive self-publishing industry, there were two ways to get a book into print: through a traditional publishing house or by way of a vanity press. The latter method required the author to pay for the publication of the book and the run was sent to the author, to market as he or she saw fit. (Many argue -- quite correctly -- that the online self-publishing industry is nothing more that the modern day vanity press.) Since most of these late-in-life would-be writers had no more knowledge of marketing than they did of writing, many of these runs were sold out of the back of station wagons in grocery store parking lots, given away to relatives, or moldered away in a dank Florida basement.

The seven writers who were contacted were Don Tracy of Clearwater(How Sleeps the Beast and many crime and historical novels), Joseph Hayes of Sarasota (The Desperate Hours), MacKindlay Kantor of Sarasota (Andersonville), Richard E. Glendinning of Sarasota (historical novels and pulp stories), Wyatt Blassingame of Anna Maria Island (hundreds of pulp stories and many juvenile books), Thomas Helm of Dunedin (many non-fiction books on the sea) and, of course, John D MacDonald. All contributed something, a long as you consider Kantor’s one sentence reply “something”: “Good God, boy, there’s no time now for this kind of crap!” The others were dutiful and sincere in their giving of advice, none more so than MacDonald, who’s piece was the longest and was placed last in the article. I’ve transcribed his contribution in its entirety below.

The article, titled “Think You Can Write?” was published in the newspaper’s Sunday supplement Sunday on July 11, 1965, two months before Bright Orange for the Shroud would hit the paperback racks. It was prefaced with this brief paragraph:

Nowhere is there a greater concentration of would-be authors than on the Suncoast, where thousands of retirees dream of writing their life stories. For them -- and for you, if you've also entertained such a dream -- Sunday asked seven famous Florida writers for advice. Here are their letters of reply.

Here’s MacDonald’s contribution:

When a man can afford from $3-5,000 to have a book published by a vanity press publisher, I see nothing particularly wrong about it, provided he understands just what he is doing.

Usually vanity books are adequately packaged. He has ample copies to inscribe to old friends. The general public will not know or care that he paid to have it published. His name on a book makes him an author. It is a tiny crumb of immortality, a hedge against the blackness, a reference source for his own blood line. And, during the television commercial, he can look over and see it on his book shelf.

He must understand that the odds against his ever breaking even and getting out of it without a substantial financial bruise are at the very least 100,000 to 1. The vanity house will plant some small ads, may even arrange some minor reviews in minor places...

One aspect of the venture may trouble him in time. A few will be sold. He gets a royalty statement. Royalties are generous – 40 per cent in some instances. The book is priced at $5. His statement will show a credit of $2 for each copy sold. Great! But it might occur to him that inasmuch as he has paid the cost of the publishing venture, one might more logically think of it as $3 royalty to the vanity publisher on each copy. They are in business to make money. And do.

Their advertising materials, once the would-be author is in direct touch with them, make much of the books the house has published which have more than broken even. These special instances occur in two ways:

(1.) When an author is not sufficiently diligent in exposing his book to the regular publishing houses, and thus hands over to the vanity press a genuinely saleable book. Twenty submissions and 20 rejections would be a safe indication it is not good enough for the regular publishers. This instance is as rare as a sleet storm in Tarpon Springs.

(2.) When an author has special leverage to use upon unwilling customers. Executives still active in large corporations have let it be known that buyers of their book will be looked on quite happily. Politicians have managed this in their own gentle ways also.

I suspect that the man who can afford a vanity venture might do better to operate on his own, once he has proven he cannot vend his wares to a regular publisher. With manuscript in hand, he can deal directly with area printers, and they can show him samples of the books they have done, and quote a price on X-number of copies. He will have books to give to friends and family. He will take a financial whipping, but possibly one a little less severe than he might get from a vanity press publisher. And the royalty on every sale would be 100 per cent, minus the profit margin to the retailer he has talked into giving it display space.

But if it is immortality he wants, I believe the man who can afford it might better take his $4,000, pop it into a good interest account, requesting that each year the savings institution send the interest by check to his alma mater, having explained to Old Ivy U. that it is to be a partial scholarship grant in his name.

On this business of buying dreams, two or three times each year someone will get in touch with me to say he has written a book, and it is full of exciting material, but it needs the "professional touch." And they seem quite hurt when I say I am not interested in that sort of arrangement, not on the 50-50 basis they suggest, nor on a 70-30 basis, nor even, to their consternation, on the basis that I would keep all of the profit.

Their confusion is the result of not understanding the profession I am in, its demands, obligations and requirements. Equal in value to the skills I have acquired over 20 years is the quality of the invention I can bring to my work. No writer worth his salt is going to have the slightest interest in dealing with someone else's materials - except when that person is a figure so unique, so important, so solidly placed in contemporary history that one senses a cultural obligation to deal with the substance of his life, to put it in a structured and meaningful form.

But it is always possible for the gullible to find some talentless hack who terms himself a professional, and can give a breathtaking appraisal of how, by working together, they will come up with a book that will rock the world. And then he says, "I always work on this basis, sir. You pay me $100 a week during the time it will take me to finish the job, and then when we split 50-50, you take all the royalties until you've gotten back what you've paid me, and then we split from then on." Beware!

There are two other classes of people very anxious to sell you a dream for good money. One is the reading-fee agent, who advertises in the writers' magazines. You do your unsaleable autobiography and send it in with $20. A glowing letter comes back. This is great work! We want to handle it! Appended is the list of changes we require. Accomplish them and send your fine manuscript back. With another $20 basic reading fee, and $11 for registration of the manuscript with our agency, and $25 for special personal criticism and suggestions for revision.

There have been agents who, after advertising and charging reading fees, have gradually hoisted themselves out of this questionable area and have become legitimate literary representatives. You can count them on your fingers without taking one hand out of your pocket. First class agencies neither charge fees nor solicit new clients. Beware!

And the little writing schools, beware of them too. Once upon a time my friend Baynard Kendrick conducted a survey for one of the writers' associations. He wrote a short story, making it just as impossibly bad as he could — pointless, vulgar, illiterate and unpunctuated. He arranged to have 11 copies of it scrawled in barely legible form in pencil on unruled yellow paper, and sent them to the 11 schools then advertising correspondence courses in writing. One, just one, had the grace, the ethical posture, the morality to write back and say, in effect, "Forget it."

Ten wrote letters of glowing analysis, detecting a great undeveloped talent, pleading with the unsung genius to send money and enroll at once. Beware!

To end this properly, I must now take the risk of sounding arrogant and pretentious. Perhaps I am. Writing is my profession. Twenty years, 51 books, 600 magazine stories, 30-million books sold all over the world ... and I am still battling for each small increment in skill I can possibly attain. Often I work so hard at it, so stubbornly, giving such a total effort that when an eight- or nine-hour day is over, I totter away from this machine too dazed and used up to even comprehend the dreary gruntings of the average television drama.

So somebody comes along with the beautific belief that because he has always written interesting letters to Sister Kate, he can certainly write a book.

If you follow this reasoning into another art form, the man who can whistle a tune can compose a symphony. Forget the years of studying theory, composition, harmony, structure. Just dash one off.

I believe that this innocent myth about writing a book is due to one paradox the layman does not comprehend. Writing that looks effortful is usually careless writing. The professional puts his blood, bone and viscera into the chore of smoothing, simplifying, creating a narrative flow and tempo. He takes out the lumps, over and over again. So the end product looks “easy.” Only another pro can understand what it cost to achieve a limpid simplicity.

I don't really think you can buy yourself a dream -- certainly not with money. But if you have a compulsion for the dream, if all your life you have read at least two or three books a week, if you have an IQ of 125-plus, if you are in good enough health to endure 10,000 sedentary hours, if you are content to put down the first million words for the purpose of merely learning the skills, if you are the sort of person whose opinions are not merely rehashed fragments of what you have read and listened to and if in some locked closet in your mind you are more intent on telling it true than selling it once it is told, then you might come up with a Book one day.

Anything else, no matter how impressively your wife decorates your writing room, is going to be a long long letter to Sister Kate, and if you can afford it, you can pay to get it published and give her a bound copy.

Best regards,
John D. MacDonald


Monday, September 16, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 27: April 22, 1948

Another entry from John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 newspaper column From the Top of the Hill, published in the Clinton Courier when the family was still living in Upstate New York.

The Future of Housing:

The new Lustron House, made of enameled steel, will be changed each year to provide a new model -- just like automobiles.

Scene -- the steel breakfast booth of an enameled steel house of the future. Harry, a rather haggard-looking businessman, is attempting to read the morning news as it emerges from the radiopress on the table. His wife, Beth, has an alert, intent look.

BETH: And it has an eight inch band of chrome under the picture window.

HARRY: Huh? What?

BETH: The Robinson's new house. It was delivered yesterday afternoon. It's beautiful. Three extra built-in bookshelves in the living room, a more efficient photo-electric eye on the garage doors. This house is definitely shabby, dear.

HARRY: Shabby? We've had it just two years now!

BETH: But it looks so outmoded. The chrome trim is so narrow, and people sneer when they see that we have to open the front door by hand. It's the oldest house on this street.

HARRY: I like it. I'm use to it. Besides, you know the Robinsons. Every time they have a party, they trade their house in the next day.

BETH: I've got the catalogs of the new ones, dear.

HARRY: This house runs all right and the paint job isn't too bad yet.

BETH: But the lines, darling! The lines!

HARRY: Hah! We should have kept the one we had before this one. I passed it on the street full of used houses the other day. It still looks fine.

BETH: (with a mind sneer) Now you're joking, Harry. My goodness, we couldn't be seen in an old model like that!

HARRY: (with a shrug) Some people still live in handmade houses built of wood.

BETH: And some people still drive around with horses.

HARRY: (sighing as he gets to his feet) Okay. Long as you have your heart set on it. Call up the Grinning Armenian and trade it in, but I don't want to come home tonight and have to wait around for all the bolts to be tightened on the foundation. And don't leave any of my pipes or anything in this one.

BETH: (throwing her arms around him) My generous darling!

The Unarmed Forces:

The latest act in the perpetual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta playing to SRO houses in our nation's capital is a bit more ludicrous than usual.

After much flexing of biceps regarding the unification of the armed forces and the need for preparedness, we find that the Congress, despairing of getting a firm and resolute answer on the needs of the armed forces from the armed forces themselves, is going ahead and deciding how many air groups are necessary.

That is much like the Board of Directors of the Twentieth Century Boxing Association telling Joe Lewis exactly how many left hooks he will require in this year's title bout -- Joe being unable to make up his mind.

One would suspect that with all the high priced talent in the War Department, all the planners and all the fillers-out of myriad forms, they would be able to make some firm statement of needs, rather than delegate the determination of requirements to a group who can never be on more than an amateur status.

At any rate, certain spice is being added to the Washington drama by the new head of the Marshall Plan. That gentleman, in an unprecedented moment of sanity, has raised a question about the merits of sending one billion dollars worth of cigarettes to Europe during the next four years. He seems dubious also about the merits of sending mechanized farm equipment into places were there is no distribution of gasoline.

It is fervently hoped that this gentleman has such a high resistance factor that he will not become infected by the type of Alice in Wonderland thinking which was originally responsible for the inclusion of mechanized equipment for the European peasants which would be as readily understood and operated as would be an equivalent number of cyclotrons.

As long as we are trying to buy international peace, it is well to have a sane and steady hand on the purse strings.

The Marshall Plan as yet includes no coal for Newcastle. Probably an oversight.