Monday, February 2, 2015

JDM on Starting the Travis McGee Series

Knox Burger
The McGee series use of color in the titles was decided at a place now gone, The Red Devil [111 W 48th Street in New York], which used to be right across the street from the Absinthe House, operated by Mark Reuben. Not only is he gone and the Absinthe gone, but of the group which met one day in The Red Devil, Geoffrey Bocca, Dick Gehman and Bobby Condon are gone as well. And many others from the writers’ group in the Sarasota area, such as Carl Carmer and MacKinlay Kantor. Incidentally you might like to hear something that Hemingway once said about MacKinlay Kantor. He said, “Mack would be a little bit better writer if he would resign his commission in the Confederate Air Force.”

This continual harvesting of my peers by the green ripper casts a strange light across my interior landscape.Their books are on my shelves. They exist in two dimensions, in the books and in my memory, and it is only when I think very specifically of one of them that I realize they are now in stasis, with no more editorial changes to make, small figures standing way back beside the tracks as the train goes on.

To get back to the problem, our premise was that the titling should permit the reader to read the series in any order he wished, and the titles should be in some pattern easy to remember. Musical terminology, months of the year, varieties of gemstones, days of the week -- all these were discarded and I believe it was Knox Burger who edited all the early ones who suggested colors. I approved and Mac Wilkinson approved. So we drank to Dallas McGee and wished him well.

Yes, that was his name until a dreadful incident in that city gave the name a resonance I did not want. I wrote out twenty names and did not like a one of them. MacKinlay suggested I look at a list of Air Force bases. He said they had pretty good names. And Travis was a good name in California.

I shall not run out of colors. I have yet to deal with cobalt, umber, aquamarine, black, white and cranberry. Not to mention beige, putty and puce.

The decision to do a series might interest some of you. As early as 1952 [Fawcett editor-in-chief] Ralph Daigh had suggested a series, but I had the uneasy feeling that were I to come up with a successful series, I might be stuck with it, unable to sell work of any other kind. I think my hunch was valid. First person writing is limiting. It requires a lot of tricks to make it work. It is a folk dance where you have to invent new steps without changing the basic dance pattern.

In 1963 Herb Alexander, then head of Pocket Books, offered a goodly chunk of money and guarantees to a Fawcett series author [Richard Prather] to switch houses. Said author was in a snit at the time because Knox Burger, his editor, kept taking out references to the author’s strong political prejudices. Knox felt it unseemly, for example, to name a villain Humphrey Huberts. that gives you an idea of the politics.

Knox phoned me and said that since the loss of that author, people were avoiding him in the hallways and at the drinking fountain, and he felt there was a dotted line across his throat, and would I please take a shot at a series. I said I would think about it, and I decided at last to take a run at it, maybe under a pseudonym. I think they are bad policy anyway. The writer is in the business of dropping his trousers in the town square, and it is unfair to wear a mask while so doing.

I took three shots at the first book in the series, trying to devise a protagonist I would be willing to have around the house for six books. I did two complete books and shelved them. Never sent them in. Sent in the third because by then McGee was beginning to come alive, and I halfway liked the chap. Did the next two books in the series and in 1964 they were released one a month for three months and they did right well in the marketplace and now there are 20 books in the series with at least two more to come. But I have not been stuck with doing just those books in the series. I have to have a novel to look forward to where I can move around from person to person, from heart to heart.

From John D MacDonald’s speech at Bouchercon XIV, October 23, 1983.


  1. Hi, Steve. This is a very interesting article, and I appreciate that you posted this extended JDM quote about the Travis McGee series. I guess the natural question is this: whatever happened to those first two books that MacDonald didn't like, which were "shelved?" Did any part of them come alive in later McGee novels? Perhaps this is addressed in bio by Hugh Merrill, The Red Hot Typewriter, which I haven't read yet. Any insights on what happened to these early drafts?

    1. Thank you Steve. The two early versions of THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY were shelved, and I don't know if anything in them was ever used again. I get the impression from all I have read that the differences in the three versions were mainly in the character of McGee, not the basic plot. The manuscripts are housed in the JDM Collection in Gainesville, one of them under the work's original title, THE LONG BLUE GOOD-BY.

      As for the Merrill bio, forget about it. There is little or no critical analysis in that book, and what little there is seems lifted from other sources. On gets the impression that Merrill didn't even read any of MacDonald's works.

  2. Agreed; sadly, the Merrill bio--for which I had great hopes--is one of those by-the-numbers, largely unsympathetic/uninterested rote biographies of which there have been a number in past years, including bios of Shel Silverstein, Loren Eiseley, and Charles Addams. They assemble facts but include no worthwhile analysis or interpretation.

    Thanks very much for *your* posts; they are unfailingly interesting and illuminating about one of my all-time favorite writers.

    1. Thanks Michael. Yeah, just about anybody can write a biography now if you hire enough researchers to do your leg work for you and if all you want to do is present facts. I wrote a piece on the bio back in 2009, which you can read here:

  3. Hi Steve: What a treat for me to read something that I never recall reading about the titles and written by the master himself. Thanks for that.

    I heard the same thing as you about the Merrill bio so decided to skip it in favor of another JDM book that I didn't have. Other than the TM series which of course, are shelved with much pride.

  4. Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.