Monday, September 22, 2014

"Conversation on Deck" and "The Game"

The chronicle of how John D MacDonald decided to become an author -- going from the security of a military career to the leap-of-faith of freelance fiction writing --was told so often and in so many interviews during his lifetime that it took on the aura of a super hero’s origin story. It goes like this: While stationed in Asia during the second world war, he wrote a short story to entertain his wife back home, mainly because censorship of his letters robbed them of anything interesting to communicate. Without telling him, Dorothy MacDonald typed the story into manuscript form and submitted it to Whit Burnett’s Story magazine, a monthly small press periodical specializing in publishing the works of new authors. Burnett purchased the story for publication and paid the author $25 for the honor of doing so. Dorothy saved the good news until her husband's return home, and MacDonald was so dumbfounded when told that he quit the army and decided to become an author.

Living off of a military form of temporary severance pay, the MacDonalds -- John, Dorothy and seven year old Johnny -- settled into the second story apartment of a large house on State Street in Utica, New York, and it was here where, MacDonald recalled, he “worked harder than [he] ever had in his life”. Sitting in front of a typewriter in a small storage area off of the living room, he wrote for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, eating little, smoking cigarettes and eventually dropping 20 pounds. He wrote story after story, sending out these unsolicited manuscripts to a long list of possible magazines, producing 800,000 words of fiction and selling -- nothing. MacDonald has often stated that during this period he collected over 1,000 rejection slips without a single sale.

“80 hour weeks. I turned out 800,000 unsaleable words in four months. That’s the equivalent of ten novels… And a lot of those words were really dreadful. I kept thirty to thirty-five stories in the mail at all times. They’d come back in and I’d rerout them to other magazines.. Thank God there were lots and lots of magazines then. I learned my trade in those four months, because you can’t hope to do the equivalent of ten novels without learning a great deal about writing… Each page teaches you something. That’s an awful lot of pages… 3000, all in short story form.”

MacDonald sarcastically characterized these “dreadful” stories as “wonderful, beautiful things about dying blind musicians,” and one often needs to be reminded that he did not set out to become a mystery writer, or even a pulp writer. He was attempting “serious” work and was focusing on the slick magazine market and the small press. Working without an agent he would make a list of possible publications for each story, put them on an index card and send the story off in the mail, marking off each possibility when it was rejected and returned. When it came back from the last magazine on the list the work was mothballed.

Starting work in October of 1945, it wasn’t until February 1946 that he was able to sell his second story, to Mike Tilden of Popular Publications. It was a tale he titled “Paint on Her Hair” but eventually appeared in the October 1946 issue of Dime Detective as “Female of the Specie”.  “Then I thought,” MacDonald recalled, “well, maybe if I lower my sights a little and work a little bit harder -- by then I was a readjustment case -- maybe it’ll work.” He sold another few pulp mysteries to Popular, a few to Babette Rosmond, who edited both Doc Savage and The Shadow, and even a few of the early non-crime tales found their way into a non-genre pulp of the time, Short Stories. He was off and running.

But this account, recalled and repeated in every one of his biographies to some degree or another, ignores two short stories that were published before any other, MacDonald’s first and second ever appearance in print. The publication was called The American Courier and MacDonald didn’t earn a dime for either of them.

JDM began his writing marathon in early October 1945. As early as October 8 he had finished product and was sending it out for consideration. As the rejections came pouring back without a nibble MacDonald became anxious and began looking for any possible forum for his work. He must have learned of The American Courier through a source such as the then-current edition of Writer’s Market, and if so, he would have been hesitant to go there first as it would have been made clear that The American Courier did not pay for the stories it published. MacDonald was, after all, trying to make a living.

The author relented, according to JDM bibliographer Walter Shine, because he “had thought it might help to build his reputation as a writer.” He had certainly never seen or read an issue of The American Courier, and it is virtually impossible to learn anything about this obscure journal. But in mid November of 1945. he sent two of his stories to the Courier: “The Game,” one of the earliest stories he had written and one that had already been rejected by five different magazines, and “Conversation on Deck,” written in late October and rejected by one other magazine. Both were accepted. “Conversation on Deck” appeared in the January 1946 issue and “The Game” in the following month.

Happy to have finally sold something, MacDonald was anything but happy when he received his tearsheets in the mail. The American Courier, far from being a respectable Story-like small press magazine, was in fact  “a mediocre, typewritten ‘magazine’ showing no trace of professionalism” (Shine’s characterization). Produced on a mimeograph machine with a block lettered, hand drawn masthead and primitive illustrations of presidents Washington and Lincoln, the magazine looked more like a junior high school newsletter than a small press journal. Whatever hopes JDM had for building his reputation must have been immediately replaced by an abashed embarrassment. Who on earth would be reading such a “magazine”?

And the stories themselves?

While they are certainly not “dreadful,” had MacDonald not submitted these works to a publication such as The American Courier they most certainly would have been among the infamous 800,000 unsaleable words,  for it’s doubtful any legitimate magazine would have printed them. While the writing is basically serviceable, the plots are obvious and derivative, and the characterizations are -- to put it politely -- amateurish. And both are representative of the early work MacDonald was able to get published, in that they both draw heavily on his military service during the war.

“The Game,” which is quite possibly the first short story MacDonald wrote when he began his marathon endeavor, is set in wartime Ceylon (Sri Lanka for all you younger folks) and features a cast of British soldiers who seem to be involved in the same sort of early espionage that the author himself was doing during his stint with the OSS. But espionage and warfare have little or nothing to do with the plot, which is basically the old saw of a man slowly going mad after he loses his girlfriend to another man. I mentioned earlier about how most of this early learning-experience work of the author’s was directed at the slick magazines of the time, but “The Game” does concern a murder and was submitted to both Adventure and Dime Mystery before being rejected by both magazines.

Corporal Henry Warlow spends his dull days sitting in a sending station in Colombo, Ceylon, broadcasting “meaningless five letter code groups hour after hour”. His days had finally taken on new life when a female cryptographer named Shelagh arrives and the two of them begin a relationship. Shelagh is described in a nice bit of writing:

“... his thoughts turned to Shelagh, turned to her crisp black hair and shadowed eyes and body too lush for her eighteen years -- Shelagh too far from home and school, too emotionally transfixed by the slow sweet smell of Ceylon and the charm of the tanned uniformed men around her. In Shelagh he had found, beyond the warmth of her lips, a pixie humor and a tenderness which had made him feel less alone than at any time since his foreign tour had started three years before. Though he sensed the eagerness and the readiness in her, he had purposely kept their relationship on the basis of an occasional casual kiss -- until suddenly she had fallen for the Wythe-Campbell spell and become forever lost to him, forever immune to the future he had daydreamed out of their togetherness.”

The “Wythe-Campbell spell” emanates from Lieutenant Robert Wythe-Campbell, the handsome officer who, once he spots the new member of the staff, senses her “urgency” and promptly takes advantage of it. Shelagh is lost to Warlow forever, and he now spends his idle time playing the game: “The game called how to kill Lieutenant Robert Wythe-Campbell.”

It’s nothing but a mind game, one that “had shortened the hours of drudgery and had enlivened [his] dull midnights in bed… Always he kept the vision of Shelagh in the farthest corner of his mind to prevent her very vividness from clouding his thoughts and preventing the birth of the perfect scheme, the scheme which he knew in his heart he could never carry out once it had been conceived.”

But Warlow is slowly becoming unhinged by his rejection. An afternoon of drinking in a downtown hotel with two fellow Other Ranks (non-com’s) ends when, following a dimming of vision and a loud drumming in his ears, Warlow slaps one of his drinking partners. He slowly withdraws from the world around him and speaks only when necessary. And sleeps very little. On one particularly fitful night he rises and takes a midnight walk down to the nearby beach. Along the way he spots a solitary figure who is nearly run down by an approaching train. Running over to offer aid he discovers the man to be none other than Lieutenant Robert Wythe-Campbell, hopelessly drunk, his clothes stained with his own vomit. Now, perhaps, The Game can finally be played…

“Conversation on Deck” is a different animal altogether, although it does share with “The Game” a background in wartime Southeast Asia. The title of the short story reveals the simplicity of the plot, if one can even call it a plot. We’re on a transport ship in the Pacific during World War II, part of a large convoy of “AP’s,” headed for the atoll of Ulithi. With each ship carrying over three thousand passengers, and with the lower decks of the ships like “living in a steam bath,” men were permitted to sleep on deck. Officers were awarded places on the top deck, the most comfortable and desirable sections of available above board ship.

The story concerns one group of officers in particular, eight in number but only three who drive the story: the first-person narrator-observer, and two majors, Ike Neal and Wendell Howity.

“[Ike Neal] was a peashooter driver who hoped to tranship at Ulithi for stateside on a war weary basis. He looked like he had Indian blood in him. Red bronze color with high cheekbones and heavy brows. He had a wonderfully strong body, heavy shouldered with knots of muscle whenever he moved. In spite of his twenty-five years, those heavy brows gave him the look of a movie villain -- not the drawing room type, but more the sort of guy who always robs the stage coach and shoots the peaceful settler. He had a glib line of chatter, but his conversation was one hundred percent composed of the telling of incidents in the life of Major Neal. Most of his incidents concerned his love life, but every once in a while he would hand us a tale of his exploits in the world of sports. I gathered that he had played every kind of rugged game know to man.

Sometimes if a guy like that selects the more interesting incidents and if you only have to spend one evening with him, he is okay. But listen to variations on a theme week after week gets tiresome… We were getting fed up with him, but since he had a sharp tongue, a hot temper and a set of capable fists, we suffered in silence.”

And so it goes, night after night, with every subject raised in conversation by another group member providing an opening for Neal to interject one of his long-winded tales of female conquest.

Then, one evening when the subject of boomerangs gave way to another Neal story about a girl from Perth, the conversation is joined in sudden fashion by the until-now silent Major Howity. Little is known about this quiet officer who generally keeps to himself, but the narrator reveals that Howity “... had been an artist before the war, had gone into camouflage and then had drifted over into Air Corps intelligence… he had the kind of manner that discourages personal questions.”

His interruption is a loud, pointed and almost confrontational “Major Neal!” Neal is, for once, thrown off guard and silenced. Howity proposes an odd wager with Neal.

“You start one of your stories, pick any one. After you have finished about two minutes or ten seconds of story telling -- when you come to a convenient stopping place, you will pause. At that point I will present you with one hand wrapped, ready made thought. It won’t take me long for each thought. Then, as you can see, our small audience here will have two distinct thought trains to follow. I won’t be attempting to tell a story, and you will. We will see which conversation, yours or mine, occupies their mind when we have both finished… Is that okay with you?”

Neal agrees. He begins a recollection of his time stateside when he and another officer managed to get leave and headed to Los Angeles to score some women, “coy [enough] to make the first night, [but not] a couple of tramps.” He stops there and turns the floor over to Howity. His voice is “hard to describe… one of those voices that sometimes give you a chill feeling on the back of your neck.” He begins:

“Look into the sky, Neal, and pick out a faint star. Look hard at it… In all probability, the light which you see left that star two hundred years ago. The star is not now where you appear to see it. In two hundred years that star has moved. The path of light from that star to your eye is a long curved path reaching out countless miles into frozen space. Give your eyes the power of a lense at a great observatory and you could detect the glimmer of light from stars so distant that the rays you see started toward this earth long before recorded history. Proceed, Neal.”

In the brief silence that follows the narrator describes a feeling of dizziness and the group’s “sense of our own puniness in the gigantic plan of stars and constellations.” Neal continues hesitantly with his own tale, describing his meet-cute with a nice looking woman in a bar, then stops again to let Howity continue. He asks everyone to feel their blankets and to imagine the microscopic particles that make up those blankets, how they originated  and how they will return to their origin, and how it relates to the light from the stars they are looking at. Neal resumes another round and Howity responds with another deep thought, then Neal gives up rushes to the end of his story.

I don’t usually reveal endings to the short stories or novels I discuss here, but with “Conversation on Deck,” there really isn’t any ending to spoil. Neal and Howity eventually become closer and are often seen conversing together, while the narrator can only try and relate how profound Howity was and how something happened that night, but he isn’t entirely sure what.

Both stories are for MacDonald completists only, with little to offer of literary value and are instructive only to those interested in the progress of JDM’s writing talent. Suffice it to say that it began roughly.

I mentioned that both stories had been submitted to other magazines before being offered to The American Courier, and for the most part these are recognizable titles, like Adventure, Dime Mystery, Esquire and even the Toronto Star Weekly, a Sunday supplement to the Toronto Star (it was the Canadian version of This Week and Parade) where MacDonald eventually found a home for a handful of his later tales. But in addition to these publications, both “Conversation on Deck” and “The Game” were submitted to a magazine called Tomorrow. When I first saw that I thought Tomorrow
must be some obscure science fiction pulp I had never heard of, but there doesn’t seem to have ever been an sf pulp called Tomorrow, and neither of these stories could be called science fiction even under the broadest of terms. No, the Tomorrow that MacDonald submitted these stories to was a magazine founded in 1941 by a famous medium and psychic of the day, Eileen J Garrett. The Jeane Dixon of her time (for those of you old enough to remember Jeane Dixon), Garrett’s interests were broader than parapsychology (authoring several novels under the pseudonym Jean Lyttle) and she founded Tomorrow as “a literary journal, devoted to the finest in writing and thought.” Parapsychology was certainly its focus, but fiction by authors such as Thomas Mann, August Derleth, Eudora Welty, Stuart Cloete and Harvey Jacobs appeared in its pages. Garrett was editor for much of its run, but in 1961 it was assumed by the Parapsychology Foundation and became a quarterly featuring only non-fiction. Why John D MacDonald thought his two stories would be suitable fodder for the readers of such a periodical can only be guessed at. I suppose it couldn’t be stranger than one of his stories, “The Cardboard Star.” appearing in the Catholic magazine The Sign

(A special thank you to Chris Ogle, who writes the wonderful John D MacDonald Covers blog, for obtaining copies of these stories for me from the John D MacDonald Collection at the University of Florida. Needless to say, it’s doubtful that I ever would have stumbled upon a used copy of The American Courier.)

Image of The American Courier masthead courtesy of the John D. MacDonald Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. Always good to know about humble beginnings.