Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee

Just as John D MacDonald began his writing career relatively late in life, so did he embark on the creation of a series character late in his career. MacDonald was 46-years old when he first started putting together the ideas that would eventually lead to the creation of his most enduring literary legacy. He was already the author of 38 novels, had published over 350 works of short fiction in American periodicals and had seen several of his stories adapted for both television and film. He was a success by every measure of the word and had earned -- and spent -- over half a million dollars from the sales of his work -- serious money back in the 1950's.

He had never wanted to write a series character, although he made a couple of half-hearted attempts at it in his pre-novel days. The first was done in MacDonald's first year as a writer at the behest of Doc Savage editor Babette Rosmond, resulting in two short stories that are now long forgotten. Benton Walters was a (surprise!) ex-army officer who was having trouble settling down back in the States and managed to get into a few adventures. MacDonald quickly tired of the effort and wrote Rosmond, "Honest to God -- I'm never going to start another series. They are limiting and I hate them."

Yet only four years later he tried again, creating the very Doc Savage-like hero Park Falkner, a fabulously wealthy playboy and resident of his own island off the coast of west Florida. Falkner relieves his constant boredom by digging into the pasts of people he believes have done some great wrong and are hiding it, then devises some clever and complicated ruse to smoke them out. But like Benton Walters, Falkner appeared in only two stories before disappearing forever. MacDonald didn't even remember creating Falkner until the two stories were collected for the 1982 anthology The Good Old Stuff, and he wrote:

"[These stories] intrigued me because they dealt with the same hero, one Park Falkner, who in some aspects seems like a precursor of Travis McGee. And in other aspects he foreshadows the plots of a lot of bad television series which came along later."

Once MacDonald began writing novels in 1950, it didn't take long for his editors to start hounding him to jump on the series character bandwagon, suggesting that the hero of The Brass Cupcake -- Cliff Bartells -- would make a mighty fine version of a Philip Marlowe or a Sam Spade. MacDonald said "no" and he kept saying "no" throughout the 1950's as his publishers -- Fawcett, Dell and Popular Library -- kept at him, desperate for a marketable new hero from a writer who was already a proven seller.

MacDonald said "no" for a couple of reasons, reasons he wrote about in a fascinating article published in the September 1964 issue of The Writer titled "How To Live With a Hero," only a few months after the first three Travis McGee novels were published. As a still relatively-green author, MacDonald feared the limitations of a series character -- especially in the almost mandatory use of first person narrative -- and he feared being unable to sustain a story line, but most of all he feared being typecast and, as a result, becoming unable to sell any other type of fiction. He wanted "the maximum latitude in creative invention," something he enjoyed to the fullest extent, as any review of his publishing history will reveal. He wrote for every kind of magazine that published fiction, and did it all well. He has said that when he sat down to try and write for a particular kind of market, "the words died." He worked on whatever idea came into his head, from crime to science fiction, from sports to mainstream, and the thought that he could be limited to writing about only one particular character must have struck real fear in him.

Also, MacDonald knew enough about the problems of some other authors who had been lured into the series character snare. In a 1979 interview he explained,

"I was too aware of the sad stories of people who had gotten trapped in series characters. Editors would buy nothing from them but stuff about the series character, and I did not want to dig a grave that early. I was aware of the difficulty Marquand had shedding the Mr. Moto bit. I was aware of the fact that one man wrote a series of stories for The Saturday Evening Post. He did very well with them too. But every time he tried something else, they wouldn't buy it, and finally the poor guy killed himself. I wanted to escape from that kind of emotional trauma. Everybody is familiar with Conan Doyle and his dreadful attempts to shed Sherlock, all to no avail. So I refused absolutely."

Yet in 1962 he changed his mind.

A lot had changed by then. He had already written nearly 40 novels and 95 percent of all of the short fiction he would ever attempt. Clearly no publisher would now be capable of "typecasting" MacDonald, or forcing him into only one kind of story. Any writer who could publish a book about his two cats, or who could take a year off to cover and later write about a murder trial had freedoms few other writers did. But MacDonald was used to a fairly comfortable living and a pretty good income, and that was in danger. Even great writers back then, before the Internet and the explosion of small press publishers, were subject to the whims and caprices of the people who ran the book world. Any writer, no matter how successful, could be dropped in the twinkling of an eye, for whatever reason. Just ask Harry Whittington.

In "How to Live With a Hero" MacDonald goes to lengths to convince the reader that his motive behind the change of mind was not solely economic, yet that is clearly the impression he leaves, assuming that his ability to continue to enjoy the freedoms he did as a writer was ultimately economic. He wrote:

"In 1962, it became apparent to me that the market for my work was changing. The reduced number of magazines published less fiction. Small book sales on newsstands were being diminished by three factors: New titles in excess of rack space resulted in smaller average print orders; intensive promotion of reprints of bestsellers caused a squeeze from the top; semi-pornography by off-brand houses with larger retail margins caused a squeeze from the bottom."

He went on to explain that his primary focus at the time was a trilogy of novels that would be released in hardcover, "interrelated in the sense that they are variations on the same theme," and that his continuation as an author of paperback originals needed to offer a monetary return "consistent with the effort involved." He would embark on the creation of a series character only if he could be reasonably assured it would be successful.

"'Successful' to me meant two things. Not just a public acceptance, which would lead to substantial reissues of the titles in the series, but also a format which would give me the chance to continue to do paperbound originals as satisfying to me as A Key to the Suite, The Deceivers, Slam the Big Door, The Only Girl in the Game and The Drowner. Only in this approach could I fulfill my responsibilities to all the people who had formed the habit of looking for my name and buying the books. If I dogged it with dreary, predictable formula, I might pick up a more numerous and less demanding audience, but it would require a cynicism that would diminish my other work."

The article doesn't mention the actual impetus for MacDonald's change of mind, but he talked about it in that 1979 interview. His old friend Knox Burger, who as a fiction editor at Collier's back in 1949 had paid MacDonald his first four-figure sale for the wonderful short story "Looie Follows Me," and who pulled MacDonald over to Dell in the mid fifties and then back to Fawcett in the Sixties, needed a big favor.

"... in 1963... Richard Prather... was writing a series of [extremely successful] books about a hero named Shell Scott... Knox Burger...was his editor at Fawcett Gold Medal, and Prather, a Californian, had some extremely strong right-wing political tendencies. He saw socialism and communism crouched behind every bush, and in fact he went so far as to name one of his dire Red villains Horatio Humberts, which would indicate Dick's warped vision of Senator Humphrey. At any rate, Knox Burger infuriated Dick Prather, whose novels were selling well, by telling him to take out all that political junk and stay with the story. At that moment in time Herb Alexander, the head of Pocket Books, approached Prather... and made an offer of a million dollars to him for a ten year contract... Prather plunged at it like a hungry carp, probably figuring that he would run into an editor at Pocket Books who would be so in awe of the million dollars that he would let the political commentary stay in the stories."

[This rather fanciful story is belied by Prather's own recollections, which can be read here.]

Burger, who MacDonald claimed was singularly blamed for letting Prather go, then begged MacDonald to try a series character, "...to help [him] out of this jam."

And so he began.

This being John D MacDonald, it involved an awful lot of hard work before he arrived at a character he was happy with, one he could "live with." Remember, this is the guy who began writing by working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week for four months before selling his second story, and who, even after he was an established force to be reckoned with, worked every day at the typewriter, from morning to evening with a single lunch break, and who took little time off. MacDonald would not settle for something he didn't consider his best effort.

He worked for several months, churning out 150,000 words he later trimmed down to 70,000, and ended up with a book he "could have sold." Could have, but didn't, because ultimately MacDonald was not happy with the person he had created.

His name was Dallas McGee, named after a personal friend of MacDonald's named Dallas Dort. He loved the use of a "geographical" name like Dallas, calling it "fun" and "easy to remember, like Tennessee Williams or Vermont Royster..."

"My man [Dallas McGee] was somber, full of dark areas, subject to a moody violence. And he was fixed so firmly in a locale [not revealed] that moving him about in later books would be an additional implausibility affecting the desired suspension of disbelief."

In later interviews MacDonald referred to this first version of Travis McGee as "... very heavy handed, somber and Germanic. He was very moody and very gloomy and he had a lot of drab observations about the world..." MacDonald shelved the effort and began a second attempt, retaining a few "useable parts and fragments."

A month later he had Version Two done.

"Wary of the somberness I did not feel he could sustain over a series, I swung too far the other way and ended up with a jolly, smirking jackass for my 'hero.' Oh, he had plenty of mobility, but he was a silly fellow. The book, as a one-shot, stood up well enough and I could have sold it, but again there were useable things which I wanted to save for the man who was beginning to take shape in my mind, the man I would find it possible to live with over the life of the series."

So the third attempt was the charm, and by the middle of 1963 MacDonald had produced The Deep Blue Good-By, starring Dallas McGee, a 60,000-word novel featuring a hero with "some of the man in the first book, some of the man in the second... but all the rest of it was McGee, an individual, recognizable, independent, feisty, wry, articulate and, bless him, reasonably mature."

So after nearly 400,000 words, MacDonald finally had a hero he "thought [he] might be able to go on with."

He sent it off to Fawcett and told them to wait. Not to publish it but to wait. He wanted to to be sure he could really do this.

"I was still not certain I could make it work. Would subsequent adventures dull him down to a formula, destroying freshness? Would the quality of his observations become trite through repetition? Was my attempt to give him reasonably meaningful emotional relationships within the accepted practices of our social order, and consistent with his character and needs, a valid novelistic dimension, or would it seem a rancid device to jack up the sales?"

The only way to find out, MacDonald reasoned, was to try another one. He began work of what would become Nightmare in Pink, and it seemed simple work. It fell together easily and the result was a compelling continuation of the character, out of his element and in real danger. MacDonald sent it to Fawcett and told them to... hold on. He still wasn't sure.

His attempt at a third McGee adventure seemed to prove all of the foreboding he had been feeling about working on a series character. The unnamed novel quickly "fell apart badly" and he shelved it. Admittedly "disturbed," he began work on a fourth McGee novel, "a long one, 125,000 words," which "held together" and which he eventually titled A Deadly Shade of Gold. Before sending it off he began work on a seventh McGee adventure, which came together nicely and which eventually saw light as A Purple Place for Dying. Buoyed by two successful attempts, he returned to the fifth novel, the one that "fell apart badly," in an attempt to pull something useful from it. He "did it over, without salvaging a single page" and ended up with an acceptable novel he titled The Quick Red Fox.

But there would be one more bump in the road. On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, leaving that city's name with a "distaste" that would stay with it for years, at least until 1978, when the eponymous and incredibly successful television soap opera made people think of something different when they heard the name. But in 1963 "Dallas" would no longer do, and MacDonald began searching for another name for his hero. His friend, fellow writer and Sarasota drinking buddy MacKinlay Kantor suggested that MacDonald use the name of a US Air Force airbase. MacDonald perused a list of names and instantly lighted upon Travis Air Base in Fairfield, California. MacDonald's hero had a new name.

So, before the first Travis McGee novel was even published John D MacDonald had already written the first five entries in the series and had scrapped two novel-length "failures." He had, by his own account, written approximately a million and a quarter words about this hero. As MacDonald wrote, "It takes brute effort to achieve the illusion of effortlessness."

The Deep Blue Good-By and Nightmare in Pink were published simultaneously in April of 1964 and A Purple Place for Dying followed in June of that same year. By the time The Quick Red Fox hit the stands in October (four McGee's in a six month period!) the author already had two more TM adventures blocked out and ready to begin writing. A Deadly Shade of Gold eventually saw the light of day in February of 1965.

I have argued on this blog that John D MacDonald was, if anything, an insecure writer, made so by his curious belief that writers were born knowing that that is what they were meant to do and that all other hopefuls (such as himself) need not apply. He lived for years thinking himself an imposter, a "fraud," but it was that basic insecurity, I believe, that made him the superior writer that he was. He worked like a dog and wasn't afraid to shelve work he thought unworthy of reading, no matter how much time and effort he had put into it. This was a trait most evident in his early years while working in the lowly pulps, but it was present in nearly every phase of his career, whether he was attempting a series character, producing journalistic non-fiction or even re-publishing his own earlier work. He never though he was good enough and was consistently "abashed" when confronted with early work he thought inferior. "How To Live With a Hero" illustrates this to some degree, when he admits that of the 40 novels he had written by 1964, he was proud of only a few of them, ashamed of an equal few, and had "no strong opinion" of the remaining 30. When I re-read works like Dead Low Tide, or April Evil, or The Price of Murder, or The Damned and think that the author of these incredibly readable works of narrative fiction might have been indifferent toward them, or even dissatisfied with them, it blows my mind.

In September of 1964, when "How To Live With a Hero" was published, Travis McGee was far from a sure thing. The first two novels had sold well and the returns on the third were not yet complete. MacDonald was philosophical about the future, a luxury only a long-successful writer could afford. Yet his final paragraph in the piece reveals a lot about the man, and a lot about the writer, one to whom the act of writing was clearly more important than the act of publishing, even though he once pined that writing was like "dropping feathers down a well... one is thankful for any response one gets."

"... I am keeping an eye on McGee, and checking up on his progress. What if he doesn't make it out there? At least I shall be able to stop wondering if it was wise to attempt a series. And through 1.2 million words I have learned just that much more about my profession, learned skills and attitudes and solutions which will inevitably be valuable in other areas. No matter what I write from now on, McGee will, in one limited sense, be staring over my shoulder, pleasantly skeptical, waiting for the times when I try to make my fictional people do things inconsistent with their identities, and suddenly find them dragging their feet. His smile will be ironic.

"After more millions of words than I would care to estimate, I am still learning. And it helps to have a teacher like Travis McGee."

The original September 1964 issue of The Writer is nearly impossible to find these days, but the magazine is still being published and in July 2008 they reprinted this excellent article. The issue can be purchased from their website for a mere $6.95 (plus shipping). Well worth the expense for any lover of the craft of writing fiction, of the works of John D MacDonald, or of his most famous creation, Travis McGee, who most assuredly did "make it."

6 comments:

  1. Damn good stuff this! You can count me in as one who would love to see this blog physically incarnate into the palpable - bound in one or many volumes (got the money in hand, I swear)...or as I've said before you can always write the definitive bio. With what you have here, you're well on your way. Thanks, again for all the...well, I would say hard work, but it's obviously a labor of love for you. We appreciates!

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  2. Excellent discussion about the Travis McGee series. Also thanks for the link to the interesting interview with Richard Prather.

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  3. Great story. I thought I knew a lot about JDM but your essays never fail to illuminate.

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  4. Thank you guys. I started writing this piece three weeks ago, thinking it would be a breeze. But like Hugh says, "I thought I knew a lot about JDM," but learned much along the way.

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  5. Your own brute effort paid off, Steve. I too learned much from this very readable entry. It gives me even more respect for JDM's work ethic, and more insight into his success -- so rare! -- at making each new book better than the one before.

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  6. This is a great article that really helped me understand JDM. I have been a fan for more than 50 years, and have read all of the Travis McGee novels. Until now, I always thought Travis was so natural he must have been effortlessly formed in JDM's imagination.

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