Monday, June 29, 2015

On Writing a Series Character

Four years ago I wrote a lengthy piece for this blog about the genesis of John D MacDonald’s most famous creation, Travis McGee. The primary research tool for that article -- which I called The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee -- was a 1964 essay MacDonald wrote for the magazine The Writer titled “How To Live With a Hero,” where he recalled the step by step process of creating the character and the series. Published in September of that year, “How To Live With a Hero” saw print only a few months after the first three McGee’s hit the stands and a month before the fourth entry arrived.

At that early point in the life of McGee it was too early to tell if MacDonald could sustain the series beyond the handful of titles he had published or had already written and were waiting in the wings. He was philosophical about the possibility of failure, claiming that after writing more than a million-and-a-quarter words of McGee at least he had “learned just that much more about my profession, learned skills and attitudes and solutions which will inevitably be valuable in other areas.” But, as we all know by now, McGee was a success beyond the imagination of both the writer himself and his publishers. The fact that we are still reading him, writing about him and waiting patiently while a major film version of one of the novels is produced, is a testament to that success. In my own case (which admittedly is not the best example) I can honestly state that I have completely lost track of the number of times I have re-read the series, but I think ten would be a conservative figure.

Fast forward to 1983 and McGee was as established as any series hero could be, at least for one in print. Beginning with entry number 15 (Turquoise) the books were published in hardcover and beginning with 16 they unfailingly appeared in the Best Seller lists of the day. Number 20 had appeared the year before and the author had signed a contract to write two more titles in the series. (Of course he only wrote one more before he died. For the few bits of information known about that final, never-written, McGee, see my piece titled A Black Border for McGee.) In August a college professor who was writing an article about private detectives wrote MacDonald, asking the author what it was about the type of character in general, and McGee in particular, that made it interesting for MacDonald to continue writing these books. A month later JDM answered him and his response was printed in the JDM Bibliophile.

First, I think it important to note that there are perhaps thirty published attempts at a continuing series hero for every one that manages to endure. The ones that endure meet certain ancient prerequisites for the mythic hero. One must not know too much about his past. Just a hint here and there of past deeds of greatness. He must be an honorable man without being a prig, moral without pretense to sainthood, brave without being a damned fool. And he must be in opposition to the authority of his times. A loner. Most of all he should be likeable, with the ability to scoff at his own pretensions.

The writers most likely to stumble upon that useful pattern are the ones reasonably well educated who consciously or unconsciously borrow from the writings about the mythic heroes of the past. People of all times have much the same tastes in heroes.

Now to take it from the reader’s point of view - the reader brings to the reading of a new book about his friend a whole fabric of past association. He knows the man. He does not have to work his way very warily into a book, wondering if he is going to like this new dude, if the man is going to do the right things at the right time. If he wins too big, the hero is too heroic. If he loses too much, he is depressing. Even in the anticipation of the events which have not yet unfolded in the new book, the reader has a sense of familiarity with what will probably happen - not the specifics, but the general outline of trial, error and conflict.

Now back to the writer's point of view. I have done twenty books about Travis McGee and I am under contract to do two more. If there will be any more after twenty-two, I do not know. It is restricting and difficult to work in the first-person mode. One cannot cheat. Everything must be seen, appraised, evaluated through the eyes of McGee. This keeps the writer out of the hearts and minds of the other characters. As a novelist I get a great deal more creative satisfaction out of doing such novels as Condominium, The Last One Left, The End of the Night, Slam the Big Door and the upcoming One More Sunday, which Knopf will publish in May.

The second distressful aspect of writing the McGee books is the chore of maintaining freshness while dealing with a fairly rigid structure. One is involved in a folk dance which must necessarily be concerned with a limited number of ingredients. They must be arranged in a way which is genuinely fresh, not a simulated freshness. In other words, I must enjoy what I am writing, and not give an imitation of enjoyment.

On the other side of the ledger, I like McGee and I like Meyer, and I have spent more time with them than I have with any other friend I know. Consequently, when I try to force them to do and to say things that are not within their characters as they have been drawn, then they turn puppety, and the structure of the book sags. I know in my gut when this is happening and so I have to then go back and identify the place or places where I pushed them into uncharacteristic behavior, and scrap everything that happened after that deviation, then give them a chance to act like themselves-which they are ever anxious to do.

If I force them into contrivance, they not only disappoint me by making my book sag, they disappoint the reader. "What the hell happened to McGee?" they ask in angry letters.

I believe that series characters, after three or four successful books founder because the author becomes restive working within that framework and tries to alter the basic structure - the way 007 was screwed up by a change of viewpoint in one of the later books. Some writers try to add new components that do not belong in the genre - political opinions, science fiction and fantasy, lady or tiger endings. One or two bummers and you are out of business, just like the movies.

It would be less than honest to leave out the money part. The money part of a successful series is nice. It enables me to live in the style to which Travis McGee is accustomed. But, beyond sustenance, I have never written for money alone. I have written to please myself, and would keep on doing it even if there were no markets left at all. The only change would be that I would probably do less of McGee and more of the multi-viewpoint novel. Aiming at the money is the primary way of creating a weak book.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Even Up the Odds"

I’ve always been a reader. Growing up in a house full of books and with one parent a true bibliophile (my mother), reading was a normal and expected way of life. I began at an early age and never looked back. And outside of a normal childhood fascination with comic books, it has always been the written word that has captivated me. Looking back on my reading life I sometimes try and quantify my experience: how many books have I read? How many different authors have I enjoyed? How much required reading did I zip through while my classmates struggled with a volume of Cliff Notes? What was the first book that I stopped reading because it was so bad I couldn’t continue? (That one’s easy: The Word by Irving Wallace. Taking a cue from Dr. Watson, I threw it across the room in disgust.) The route from my house to the local library has always been a well trodden one, and once I learned to drive I practically lived in used book stores on the weekends.

Of all of the great literary years of my life, 1978 stands out as the Year of the Short Story. In the tenth month of that year three monumental and indispensable anthologies of short stories by three of the best writers America ever produced were published. Irwin Shaw, who had long since devolved into a slightly pedestrian writer of sprawling novels, issued a huge tome titled Short Stories: Five Decades. It contained 63 stories that dated back to the beginning of his career and revealed a craftsmanship that was only sporadically exhibited in his novels. Stories such as “Circle of Light,” “Tip on a Dead Jockey,” “The Eighty-Yard Run,” and the magically titled “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” were a revelation to me at the time. I never thought of Shaw the same way again. John Cheever released his own collection of past writings that same month, The Stories of John Cheever, and it was even better. A superior writer to Shaw, Cheever’s short work was more familiar to me as I owned an old used paperback of an earlier, shorter collection titled The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories. Most of the stories from Housebreaker were in The Stories of John Cheever, as were many more, nearly as many as Shaw had published (61). A few of the stories contained therein are some of the most memorable moments of fiction I cherish, including “The Swimmer,” “The Season of Divorce,” “O Youth and Beauty!,” “The Death of Justina,” and, especially, “The Sorrows of Gin.” Cheever’s anthology went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The third anthology published that October certainly doesn’t seem to belong with the two other weighty collections, but on a John D MacDonald blog and in my own literary life it certainly does. It was Other Times, Other Worlds, published as a lowly paperback, and was a collection of MacDonald’s science fiction short stories, mainly from his early pre-novel career that hailed from the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories and Galaxy. To me, these stories were the equals of the works of the other two authors, not in style or even in depth, but in revealing the sheer breadth of MacDonald’s talents. It was also the first collection of his stories culled mainly from pulp magazines and it got a lot of fans thinking that MacDonald, an author we championed as an equal to the great writers of the time, deserved his own large collection of short stories. In a word, we wanted him Cheevered.

It began with the amazing Martin H Greenberg, possibly the world’s greatest expert on the short story published in the American popular press; he was also the editor of Other Times, Other Worlds. Along with Francis M. Nivins -- writer, editor, anthologist, mystery story historian and frequent contributor to the pages of the early JDM Bibliophile -- he approached MacDonald about just such a project, although restricting it to the writer’s early work for the pulps. MacDonald was less than enthusiastic but agreed that the two could proceed and present him what they deemed to be the the best of the lot. Jean and Walter Shine, the foremost JDM bibliographers alive, joined the project and proceeded to go through every one of MacDonald’s pulp tales. They eventually whittled the list down to thirty and presented the proposal to the author. Admitting that he was “astonished” at the quality of the work, MacDonald eliminated only three of the thirty stories and agreed that they could be published, not in a single book (which would still have been half the size of the Cheever and Shaw collections) but in two separate volumes. The second would only see light if the first one didn’t tank at the bookstores.

The first volume, which was titled The Good Old Stuff, didn’t appear until 1982 and while this was not the great literary event we had perhaps hoped it would be, it was still a big deal to us fans and for many opened up a world we hadn’t experienced before. It was favorably reviewed and sold well, in fact better than anyone had expected. All of the stories are uniformly good, some okay, some excellent and a few truly amazing. I would classify “Even Up the Odds” as belonging in the later category. It didn’t appear until the second volume, which was titled More Good Old Stuff, but it was certainly worth waiting for and proved that as far as quality went, the collection wasn’t front-loaded. While written in a Runyonesque first person singular and featuring a plot that isn’t exactly original, there is a quality to the writing that is a step above most of the other tales, along with a wistful air of regret and loss that barely skims the surface. It had a lasting effect on me the first time I read it and I’ve enjoyed going back to it often. For me, it never gets tired.

Johnny Pepper, a “large and ugly” bartender, is the story’s protagonist and narrator. He works in a dingy dive called the Spot Tavern, situated on River Street in a less-than-good part of town. The Tavern’s owner, Angelo Manini, a small and somewhat elderly man, is a kind of tyrant and he frequently tries to push Johnny around, only resulting in Johnny quitting, which he has done several times before.

... always he fires me and the neighborhood hears that he is behind the bar and all the characters come around and talk rough to him and he gives away two free drinks for every one paid for, as he is usually nervous of anybody who acts like they want to hit him. Then he begins to think how he would rather be in the back room drinking that red wine and playing some screwy card game with some old guys who come in just to play with game with him. The next day he comes to see me and at twelve noon sharp I am wrapping on the apron and once again Johnny Pepper, which is me, is at the old stand, with that junior baseball bat handy to reach, prepared to handle the business.

One day Manini asks Johnny to move all of the crates and boxes of booze out of the upstairs storage room and down into the basement. When asked why, Manini informs him that he is renting it out to “a lady and her husband.” The room has “only a sink, with holes in the walls and rats like jackrabbits,” but Manini says he is getting it fixed up that afternoon.

The next day the couple move in. From the bar Johnny can see them outside supervising the movers. The man is unimpressive, a “frail type” leaning against the side of the truck “sneering at the bustle.” The wife, however, is altogether different.

She is a slim type with good clothes, and she stands out in the wind giving orders to the bums who carry up her furniture. The wind plasters her skirt against her and I see that when the customers are drinking, she better stay upstairs with the door locked, as she is built like what my customers dream about on winter nights.

Johnny’s brief reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Buster Pasternak, built “like Gargantua,” mean as a snake (“even when he is sober”) and as quick as an alley cat. He’s thirty-five, blonde and half balding, “with a beefy face and mean little eyes.” He’s also connected.

Often I have wished to work him over with the ball bat, but seeing as how his brother Dave is deputy chief of police, and his brother Harry is alderman, and his brother Francis is behind all the rackets in town, one swing with the bat and Angelo Manini has to fold his tent and sneak. Buster meets nobody but yes men and strangers. He loves to turn the strangers into yes men.

And sure enough, he picks a fight with another customer, a big man nursing a drink and minding his own business. Buster saunters up to him smiling and manages to provoke a fight, which he wins with little difficulty. (And told in a few fairly graphic sentences.) The man staggers out of the bar and is back in a few minutes with the local cop. When he points out Buster as the attacker, the cop shoves the man out of the bar. “Get away with you, you stew bum. If Mr. Pasternak beat you up, he had a good reason.”

The next day the man living upstairs makes his first appearance in the bar. He says little, but begins to open up after a few quick belts of straight rye. He introduces himself as Bob Simmonds, and Johnny thinks to himself “I had him cased. There‘s only one kind of drinker that drinks like that. I began right then to feel sorry for the wife.” Simmonds tells Johnny that he is a poet and is working on a book of poetry that, when published, will make him rich. His wife is the family breadwinner, a secretary for a guy who runs a big laundry. As the day winds on, Simmonds gets more and more lit, reciting poetry and talking about art and culture, and before Johnny realizes it he has emptied a bottle. Then Buster walks in.

But it is Simmonds who makes the first move. In a scene that is remarkably similar to an early incident in Clemmie, he yells across the bar. “And here comes an example of the Neanderthal man. The primitive type.” Buster comes over and Simmonds takes a swing at him, “like a kiss from a mosquito.” Buster grabs him and just as he is about to start slugging, Simmonds’ wife comes into the bar and gets between them, “her big eyes flashing.” She warns off Buster with a “Keep your paws off him, ape man” and Simmonds falls to the floor in a dead drunk. She asks Johnny to please bring him upstairs for her and she heads up,  “her hips moving nicely under her skirt.” Buster, looking dazed, whistles “That’s for me. Boy! That’s for me.”

This worries Johnny, as Buster has a reputation with women, and it usually involves violence, which is always hushed up later by his brothers, no matter how extreme. Johnny carries Simmonds up to his room and he gets an earful from Mrs. Simmonds about her husband’s alcoholism, which has been especially bad for the past three years. She begs Johnny to stop serving him, but Johnny says he can’t do that, and besides, there are plenty of other bars in their neighborhood. Thinking of Buster, he tells  Mrs. Simmonds to purchase a chain for the door and tells her all about the man who nearly beat her husband. She agrees and the next day Johnny installs it for her.

A week goes by without seeing anything more than a glimpse of Mrs. Simmonds on the way to work. Then, on a rainy Thursday, in walks Mr. Simmonds, flashing a ten dollar bill, which he pilfered from his own sugar bowl. A boy who was sitting by the door rushes out and Johnny tells Simmonds to hurry up and drink his drink and get upstairs behind that chained door, as the kid just ran out to inform Buster that Simmonds had come back to the bar. Simmonds is unperturbed and pulls out a .22 automatic, answering “I loaded sweetie pie last night… I can put all seven shots into your eye from across the room. I’m ignoring the monkey, but he lays a hand on me and he gets it.”

Five minutes later, in walks Buster…

The charm of “Even Up the Odds” lies not only in the wonderful first person narration of Johnny Pepper, that kind of street level urban prose that MacDonald mastered early in his career without it coming off as (too) derivative, or in the gritty, realistic world that the author creates so effortlessly in as few words as possible, but also in the almost implied feelings Johnny has for a perfect stranger, Mrs. Simmonds. Almost as if he is afraid to reveal it to the reader or even to admit it to himself, he drops a sentence here and there that is dripping with meaning, a tender hearted bartender who is utterly smitten by a beautiful woman. The final two paragraphs of this short story are wistful, evocative and nearly poetic.

“Even Up the Odds” was published in the January 1948 issue of Detective Story Magazine, a Street and Smith pulp publication that had been on the stands since 1915 and which had once been a weekly. Over 1,000 separate issues of this title were on the stands over that 33 year period, an amazing amount of popular fiction. The pulp would last only another year after “Even Up the Odds” was published, and Street and Smith buried it. The rights to the title Detective Story Magazine were sold to Popular and they revived the pulp in 1952 as a bi-monthly. Yes, 1952 seems an odd year to be starting a “new” pulp, and the magazine lasted only six issues before folding, this time forever. “Even Up the Odds” was the only JDM story to appear in the Street and Smith version of the magazine, while he had three stories in the Popular version. (I wrote a somewhat more detailed history of the magazine in my post on JDM’s “Finders Killers!”

John D MacDonald has yet to have his day in the short story sun, and one wonders if there will ever be a The Stories of John D MacDonald published anytime, ever. I would never claim such a work could rival the prose of a Cheever, and there are a lot of his early pulp stories that are just plain bad, but there is so much good out there, unpublished or in long out-of-print anthologies, that I pine sometimes that these works aren’t better known. Still, if one gathers together the anthologies that MacDonald himself put together during his lifetime, Border Town Girl, End of the Tiger and other Stories, S*E*V*E*N, Other Times, Other Worlds and the two Good Old Stuff volumes, that makes for a pretty good The Stories of John D MacDonald, even if they aren’t collected under one roof. But that “collection” would be missing MacDonald masterpieces such as “In a Small Motel,” “The Homesick Buick,” “I Always Get the Cuties,” “He Was Always a Nice Boy,” “Built for Speed,” “Cop Probe,” “First Offense,” and a slew of other deserving stories that are lost to time. Let us hope that somewhere, behind the scenes, someone is preparing such a work. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to write about these forgotten gems, mouldering away in my collection, just waiting to be rediscovered.

More Good Old Stuff is now available as an eBook, and used copies are easy to find.

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Virus H"

Conventional wisdom avows that John D MacDonald began his science fiction writing with the publication of a short story titled “Cosmetics,” which appeared in the February 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. This occurred a full two years after his first-ever writing was published in 1946 and it began an ever increasing interest in sf by the writer that included two novels and 50 short stories and novellas, peaking in 1949 and pretty much ending in 1953.. In fact, you could look this up. Peter Nicholls, in his indispensable The Science Fiction Encyclopedia says as much, and who wants to argue with an encyclopedia?

But like most conventional wisdom, the facts tell a different story. If one looks outside the insular world of science fiction pulps and digests, the reader discovers that these kinds of tales -- science fiction and fantasy -- interested the author almost from the beginning of his writing career and continued along, albeit at a much slower pace, into the last few years of his life. The first such story, a humorous fantasy titled “Hole in None,”  was published in January 1947, not in a pulp but in a slick, Liberty magazine. His next two, a futuristic political tale and a straight up sf story, showed up in Doc Savage and Bluebook respectively. Only then did “Cosmetics” appear. In fact there may be others I am not currently aware of because I haven’t read all of the author’s short work.

After the great gush of sf ended in 1953 MacDonald continued to write these kinds of stories here and there. Everyone is aware of the two later-day tales, “The Legend of Joe Lee” and “The Annex” because they were anthologized in the author’s 1978 sf collection Other Times, Other Worlds. “The Straw Witch,” which was originally published in This Week in 1964, was included in JDM’s 1966 short story collection End of the Tiger and Other Stories. And even readers who are not conversant with MacDonald’s short story output know about the 1962 novel The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything. But between 1953 and 1962 MacDonald wrote two sf-fantasy stories and both of them appeared in that pulp-turned-men’s-magazine Bluebook. The second was a story MacDonald called “Underwater Safari” but was published in 1961 as “A Dark People Thing.” The other was called “Virus H.”

It was published in the magazine’s June 1955 issue and, like much of MacDonald’s short work (but not his sf short work) it is virtually unknown today. It’s not like it was tickling the edges of what one normally defines as science fiction -- like “A Dark People Thing” -- for “Virus H” is straight up science fiction, as far from the reality of 1955 as one could get. But MacDonald had a reason for telling this tale, one beyond the mission of simply telling a good story. “Virus H” has a message, one near and dear to the author’s heart, and one that becomes obvious as the reader learns the dénouement. For this reason I’m going to reveal more of the story than I usually do here, so for those of you who would rather read it first, be forewarned. SPOILER ALERT.

It can't happen to us -- but, brother, it's going to. It has started. Walesville, Ohio, 30 miles from Portsmouth, was the first one. It will take a hell of a while because it's a thorough job. It might not get to you for years. But it's coming.

There were a little over 14 thousand people in Walesville. Plus, of course, those who were caught on their way through.

I've seen it. I don't know when we'll be printing pictures of it. But we probably will. And it will give you a hell of a jolt. I flew over Hiroshima back in September of '45. I covered the Bengal famine in '44 for AP. I once saw a pretty girl jump from a hotel window 23 stories above the concrete sidewalk. But I have seen Walesville. Compared to that, everything else I have ever seen has been like looking into the heart of a daffodil.

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed protagonist, a former newspaper reporter who now works for the federal government as a glorified public relations officer. Three weeks prior to the beginning of the story he was called to the Pentagon and met with an emergency committee called together by the President. It was headed by an Air Force Major General named Klippe and included a couple of brilliant scientists, a United States Senator, a senior CIA official and a Brigadier General whose expertise was strategy. After Klippe reminds everyone that they are all cleared for top secret he begins explaining why they were brought together.

"Briefly, gentlemen, here is the reason why this Emergency Committee has been brought together. A strange phenomenon has occured near Walesville, Ohio. Original reports were not believed. A tongue-in-the-cheek article appeared in the Walesville paper. One of the wire services picked it up, gave it limited coverage. An Air Force officer investigated. He reported to me the day before yesterday, in the evening . I was at the spot at dawn yesterday. I had an audience with the President early yesterday morning. Regulars have been flown there and the area is blocked off. Rigid censorship has been imposed. We all leave for the spot by plane in half an hour...

"I will not attempt to describe it. I will merely say, gentlemen, that it is an area where most of the fundamental laws of nature, as we know them, seem to be suspended and altered in random, unpredictable fashion."

When the committee arrives they witness the phenomenon first hand. In an area of about 2,000 square yards and 50 yards high, there was a subtle distortion, an "odd sheen to the air" in that expanse. Rocks were floating, some of them huge, as was nearly everything else, including leaves, twigs and a dead soldier who had somehow managed to get inside the area. Occasionally the floating matter would fall abruptly, only to gradually be lifted again, like slow-motion peas in boiling water. When attempts had been made to retrieve the floating soldier, the pole that had been inserted into the area came out bent at a 20 degree angle.

After some time of observation the members of the committee revert to form. The Army general assumes it's some kind of weapon and wants to perform all kinds of destructive tests on it, like blasting it with 20-millimeter tracers and sending a tank into it. The scientists are agast and want to spend time performing all sorts of measurements and sample-takings. The reporter even jokes that this was almost like something out of a fifties science fiction movie.

Traditionally we should have had national and international hysteria, scare headlines, and, of course, three practically essential people. You know those people well. The old professor, his beautiful daughter, and the young engineer who has a really wild idea of what to do about things. The idea works, always. Man triumphs.

But that doesn't happen, and our protagonist reveals the truth about the phenomenon, something no one had known at the time.

Not one of us had guessed what it was. We were too used to thinking in terms of tough metallic shells, and big ports that unscrewed soundlessly to permit tentacled you-name-its to emerge.

It was a space ship.

And on their sixth day there it moved. In doing so, it obliterated the highway and the entire city of Walesville, including its 14,000 inhabitants. Everything was reduced to bits no bigger than grains of sand. Realizing that there was some kind of intelligence at work, Klippe and his group resolve to attempt to communicate with it when it appears again, wherever it appears again. And soon enough it does, this time 40 miles outside of Columbus. Communication experts are brought in but their attempts are laughable. "They could just as well have been trying to get an answer from the moon, or a dead tree." Then, after countless attempts spread over many days, the movement inside the area stopped and it became opaque. And a door appeared on one of its sides.

Had I guessed for some wild reason that it would grow a door, I would have thought it in terms of the fantastic -- a door 90 feet high and made of gold or something... But this was just a door. A nice white front door with the usual three-pane window and a brass knob. It even had a mail slot. All that was missing was a house number and a mat saying welcome. It was about three inches ajar. The inference was just too plain. Come on in.

Naturally Klippe wastes no time in walking up and entering the phenomenon. After spending a little over six minutes inside he emerges, marches directly to his tent and blows his brains out. One by one the members of the committee enter and come out either howling mad, weeping like children or, in one case, so indignantly purple that he has an instant heart attack. Then it is the reporter's turn and he (and we) finally learn the true purpose of these aliens' mission.

The title of this science fiction story -- MacDonald’s own, for once -- should, with a little thought, give the game away. The author’s environmentalism began soon after he moved to Florida and began witnessing the rapid despoliation of the local ecology, from the mushrooming of high rise condominiums to attempts to fill in bodies of water, to the air pollution produced by the local orange juice industry. His summer home in upstate New York was as remote as it could possibly be, a cabin in a deeply wooded section of the Adirondacks on the shores of a secluded lake. MacDonald began taking a more activist role in 1960 with the publication of a pseudonymous newspaper column that dealt mainly with what he believed was the ruination of the local environment. He wrote once “Every zoning-buster, anti-planner, and bay-filler is degrading us for the sake of his own pocketbook, be he individual or huge corporation, citing the holy name of progress on his terms. So it should come as no surprise that in 1956 he would write a science fiction story with mankind as the ultimate pathogen.

Despite one’s views on the subject “Virus X” remains a readable cautionary tale, with all of the author’s customary abilities of storytelling and characterization on fine display. The fact that it was not included in Other Times, Other Worlds is unfortunate, but was probably due less to the fact that it was unworthy than to its publication in a non-sf magazine, which may have caused it to slip by the otherwise unwavering vision of editor Martin H. Greenberg. And as far as I can tell, it has never been anthologized or reprinted, which is unfortunate, but par for the course when it comes to most of JDM’s short story output.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Junket

In the summer of 1973 following the recent publication of the fourteenth Travis McGee novel (The Scarlet Ruse),  the book’s publisher Fawcett sent MacDonald out on a cross-country publicity tour to tout the event. Scarlet was, of course, the last McGee to be published as a paperback  original: the following effort, The Turquoise Lament, was hardcover, as were all subsequent McGee’s. MacDonald, a homebody if there ever was one, hated these tours and each one seemed worse than the one before it, especially once his health issues started appearing. His wife Dorothy accompanied him on this trip, but not on all of them as she had her own laundry list of health problems to deal with.

But this trip was unique in one respect: Fawcett had written MacDonald’s itinerary so that it included visits to various company printing and distribution centers, where the author could rub shoulders with the low-level men of the publishing world: the salesmen, printers and drivers who actually put JDM books into retail establishments. With nearly all of the author’s novels still in print in 1973, this accounted for a lot of titles, and a lot of sales. And MacDonald enjoyed this part of the junket, writing to pal Dan Rowan “It was one of your typical rotten publicity tours. The good part was the early morning talking to the drivers and the route men. The bad part was everything else.”

The schedule was grueling, including stops in Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and New York. At each stop he would meet with a member of the press, one who in all probability had never read a word of his writing and whose research usually consisted of a paragraph of blurb supplied by Fawcett. A case in point was the article written in his stop in San Diego, where columnist Jim Degraw of the Copley News Service described JDM as “not a big man. About five-feet-8. Slightly stooped.” MacDonald was six-foot-2, so Degraw was only slightly off…

Reading many of these articles only brings home to the student of JDM just how tiresome they must have been for the author. The same questions asked, the repeating of the first-short-story sold, the MacDonald-McGee comparisons, the description of his writing habits... it’s a wonder John didn’t explode. But each article reveals a courteous, friendly man who was obviously “on” for the press. Almost all of the stories include a sentence or two about how nice the author was. But once the meetings were over it was a different story. MacDonald admitted to Rowan that during the trip he “had four crashing migraines, and several fits of the uglies.” He compensated himself and Dorothy on this “shitty trip” by spending lots of money on twenty dollar lunches and thirty dollar dinners and expensing it back to Fawcett. When they returned to Sarasota they immediately packed the van and headed for the relative solitude of their summer home on Piseco Lake in upstate New York.

His stop in New York City, which included a kind of a tryout for his subsequent interview on The Dick Cavett Show, resulted in the following article, which was syndicated throughout the country. It is more expansive and detailed than most of the other fare that resulted from this tour, although once again we are dealing with a reporter who has read little or no work by his subject -- a fact that he practically admits. The piece contains errors that even the casual observer of JDM wouldn’t make, but the piece is worth reading nonetheless, especially for the end of the penultimate paragraph, which I’ll bet is something even serious students of the author didn’t know.

The Paperback Revolution
by Leslie Hanscom

(New York) The paperback revolution, its success rooted in a method of mass distribution with which hardcover publishers can't compete, has given birth to a new kind of literary reputation. A writer can now achieve celebrity by appearing only in paperback, without benefit of the prestige that comes from appearing first in hardcover. Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the author who would be famous if no such thing as a hardcover book existed is John D. MacDonald, the crime suspense writer who has lately been touring the country paying thank-you calls on the great folks who made it all possible.

MacDonald's paperback publisher, the House of Fawcett, has been steering him from city to city to meet and ingratiate the distributors, route men and truck drivers who are responsible for delivering what he writes to the discount drug stores and corner tobacconists. It was a kind of courtesy call that is not without precedent; Joseph Conrad once came out to Garden City to thank the employees at the Doubleday plant. But it doesn't happen often, partly because not every writer is equipped to charm truck drivers (Conrad panicked in Garden City and made a speech that was remarkably inarticulate for a lord of language). In MacDonald's case, however, the meetings must have been a blazing success. Any writer whose works sell 46 million copies has to know something about hitting it off with the common folks, and besides that MacDonald comes on as the most winning of nice guys.

The other afternoon, at the conclusion of the tour, he was imbibing a martini in the lounge of the
Algonquin, a spot which, in defiance of all revolutions in the book world, remains the rallying
place of writers, editors, and publishers at the cocktail hour. Here, too, he seemed easily to fit in,
although a stranger might have taken him for a publisher rather than a writer. A tall man in
glasses with a tufting of snowy hair at the top of his head, he looked also -- in his attire of sports jacket and mod checked pants -- like a successful early retiree to Florida, where, indeed, he does live, although in a state far from retirement. As for the resemblance that everybody looks for  -- a likeness to Travis McGee, the amateur detective of his invention who accounts for many of those eight-digit sales -- there was none to be seen. On the tour he had just completed, MacDonald said, the only really wearisome thing was the repetitious question: "Do you live a life like Travis McGee's?"

The detective, whose 14th adventure, The Scarlet Ruse, has just appeared, lives alone on a houseboat in Miami, from which he goes forth to meet great perils. MacDonald lives in a house in Miami, designed by Dorothy, his wife of 35 years, who was sitting across the cocktail table from him, looking like his description of her as "my protector and preserve." "No, I don't live like my heroes," MacDonald said. “I like to be home, feeding my duck and my goose, leaving the typewriter when Dorothy rattles my dish." Actually, there are two homes. The other is a summer place in the Adirondacks to which MacDonald moves to spend the fall "after the vacationers are gone." In both places, the work goes on, in a contented, unending routine which has enabled him to produce 63 books so far.

A lady editor from Lippincott came over to the table to add relish to his martini by telling him jubilantly that The Turquoise Lament -- which will be the first of his books to make its debut in hardcover -- has been chosen as an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. "Good," he said kissing her, "that will let me spread my propaganda to the world even wider." (MacDonald likes to interrupt his crime suspense yarns with philosophical digressions about life and society, but when asked about what doctrine they convey, he laughs it off as an unserious question. The MacDonald message, as I am told by a colleague who has read much of the author's vast output, seems based on Mammy Yokum's golden rule: "Goodness is better than badness because it's nicer.")

At John D MacDonald's end of the writing game, which is where the writer writes for money but tries to do it with conscience and craftsmanship, the important thing, as he sees it, is to bear in mind that there is an audience out there. This explains his practice of including the name of a color in each of the adventures in the Travis McGee series. "It's a simple code," MacDonald said. "Nothing annoys a reader more than buying a book and then finding out that he's read it. The colors are a way of helping readers keep the titles straight." But there are 14 Travis McGee novels already; hasn't he exhausted the palette? "Oh, no," MacDonald said. "I looked at one of those leaflets of house painter's samples and found out there are more than 30 colors still to go. I don't know what the titles will sound like when I get down to colors like fuchsia and puce, but we'll wait and see."

That same tender concern for the reader doubles MacDonald's labor by causing him to discard a good deal of what he writes. "Once at the place in the Adirondacks," he said, "I burnt a backlog of about 2 million words. My son helped me, and it almost killed him. He was in prep school then and hated the idea of writing a three-page composition. To see all that writing go up in smoke broke his heart." The first Travis McGee novel published was the third that the author wrote. "In the first one," MacDonald said, "McGee came out sort of stolid and germanic. I did it over to lighten him up, and now he was too much of a wise guy." MacDonald said he had no use for a detective who wasn't likeable, as he found Ian Fleming's James Bond not to be. "That snob, that Fascist, that conspicuous consumer," MacDonald said, "he isn't a man I'd like to have a drink with."

Most readers find Travis McGee to be such a man, and in that sense, there is a likeness between him and his creator.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"The Flying Elephants"

In the relatively brief period of history when pulp magazines walked the earth, there were -- as in everything -- good ones, acceptable ones and lousy ones. Some lasted only a few issues before disappearing, others were published for years, and some spanned decades. As anyone who has read more than a few of these old magazines can attest, the literary quality within the pages of almost any particular title varied wildly. Within this world of fiction, reviled and barely acknowledged by “serious” students of fiction, there existed its own hierarchy. Most histories of the pulps will tell you that, of all the hundreds of various titles that were created from 1890 onward, there were four pulp magazines that were considered the elite addresses of pulp fiction. Lee Server, in his indispensable history of pulp magazines Danger is My Business, identified these titles thusly:

The vicarious adventurer could pick his thrills from a huge stack of magazines, at the bottom of which were any number of cheap Western and knockabout action titles, and at the top four eclectic content publications -- Adventure, Argosy, Blue Book, and Short Stories -- considered to be the crown jewels of the pulp world. These four offered higher pay -- three or four times the norm -- and prestige, at least by rough-paper standards, and in return demanded “slick” quality prose and story construction, realism and authenticity. The regular contributors to the top adventure magazines were the pulp community’s elite, and many a successful pulpster would fail to ever crack this lofty market even after years of trying.

So how exciting must it have been for John D MacDonald, a struggling would-be writer just starting out and attempting to earn a living and support a family by writing, to have received an acceptance letter early on from one of these esteemed titles? His third short story (for pay) to be published was in Short Stories, an 8,500-word piece titled “Blame Those Who Die” and it appeared in the June 25, 1946 issue of the magazine. Only a month later he had another tale accepted and published by Short Stories in their July 10 issue, the intriguingly-titled “The Flying Elephants.”

By 1946 Short Stories had, arguably, descended a bit from its lofty perch among the gods of pulp titles it held in the earlier years of the century. Begun in 1890 as a literary magazine, it was sold to Doubleday in 1910 and was converted to a pulp. That was the same year that the Butterick Company began the similarly formatted Adventure, and the two magazines led similar lives throughout the heyday of pulp publishing. Ron Gulart, in his equally indispensable pulp history Cheap Thrills, describes the kind of content all four of the “greats” aspired to, all emulating the pulp patriarchs All-Story and Argosy. “[These titles] presented readers with a mixed bag of heroics each issue. One cowboy, one explorer, one legionnaire, one pirate, and two or three musketeers. Most of them succeeded with this liberal format and continued with it throughout the reign of the pulps.”

“The Flying Elephants” doesn’t contain any of those particular kinds of adventurers, but if Short Stories wanted realism, MacDonald could provide it. Only a year earlier he had been stationed in Ceylon during the Second World War, and he could write about the locale’s particular atmospherics with vivid detail. Many, many of MacDonald’s earliest short efforts took place in either Ceylon or India, where he had been stationed before being transferred to the island nation that eventually changed its name to Sri Lanka. At one point it became so automatic for the author to set his stories in the Far East that one of his editors eventually had to admonish him to “take off his pith helmet.” But while he wore that helmet this part of the world was his favorite locale -- in fact the second story JDM ever had published -- “The Game” -- took place there and the careful reader can spot lots of similarities in both stories. Several of the scenes take place in identical locations -- a club, a hotel bar, a moonlit beach with a seawall -- and these particular places, where MacDonald undoubtedly frequented himself, would show up in many subsequent short stories.

Bill Drucker isn’t a cowboy, or an explorer, or a pirate: he’s a salesman, one of what would become a long line of working-stiffs-as-hero in the MacDonald canon.

He is employed by the Purtron Oil Company and is working out of their Colombo office, but as the story opens he is about to become an ex-employee. He has just received a copy of a letter his boss T.F. Carson has mailed to the head office in the states, and is angry and heading to the Colombo Club to assuage his anger in gin and ginger beer.

He unfolded [the letter- and his eyes flickered across the remembered phrases; he almost knew it by heart, "have to admit that Mr. William Drucker is unsuited for employment with the Ceylon office of this company... during his three months he has demonstrated that he cannot effectively sell our products--- vague and indifferent in his approach to his work... inferior technical knowledge and ability... unstable and hot headed--- a liability to my present operations--- that he be returned to the States as soon as a replacement arrives."

This has come as a complete shock to Drucker, as he loves his job and the station, and has been quite successful at selling the company’s products. When he attempts to argue the point with his boss, Carson blows him off: "Everything I have to say is in that report, Drucker. I'll expect you to do as well as you can until the replacement arrives, and then you'll be sent home." Completely baffled and not knowing what he could have possibly done more to lose his job, he decides to tie one on with an old buddy, an Anglo-Indian pilot named Casey Lal, who flies the Bombay-Colombo run for a small airline. Casey is due in and Drucker gets in his car and makes the trip to the airport. Here we get a taste of MacDonald’s sense of locale and what must have interested the editors of the magazine.

During the twenty-minute drive out the Galle Road through Bambalapitiya to the Ratmalana Airport, he handled the sedan automatically, weaving around the rickshaws and ox-carts, and little fragile British cars. At one point he passed an elephant swaying ponderously along the shoulder of the road. An oncoming lorry made him swerve close to the elephant, and he unconsciously flinched as the tail of the big beast swung toward his windshield. He grinned at himself, and felt better for the rest of the ride. He turned left at a huge coconut plantation and rolled to a stop near the administration buildings at the airport.

Casey agrees to go drinking with Drucker, but says that he has to meet a man at ten at the Grand Hotel. Drucker suggests that they go there to do their drinking, and on they go. After several pitchers of arrack punch and story after colorful story from the mouth of effervescent Casey, the two friends are stewed: Drucker has temporarily forgotten his imminent unemployment and Casey is barely sentient. Then Casey's appointment arrives.

[Drucker] looked down at  his glass and then looked up to see a third person sitting at the table with them. He shook his head, half expecting the vision to fade, but it didn't. The stranger sat calmly staring at Casey and waiting for a chance to break into the monologue. He was a middle-aged Singhalese, with a long, mournful face that made Bill think of a chocolate bloodhound. He giggled, and the man looked at him with such sad, abused eyes that Bill went off into a fit of half-drunken laughter. The stranger was dressed in a white shirt, a flowered sarong and a British tweed coat, as thick as a carpet.

The Singhalese is introduced by a drunken Casey as Doctor Purayana. The doctor is carrying a package wrapped in paper the size of a football, which he gives to Casey and then leaves. Drucker asks what is in the package and Casey, too far gone to be circumspect, tells Drucker that it is an elephant. An unbelieving Drucker insists that he be shown for himself.

Casey clawed the paper off the package. It was indeed an elephant. A large, cheap ebony elephant, not very well carved, the same sort of elephant that you see in a thousand shops in Colombo. It stood on the crumpled paper, gleaming blackly in the lights, with bits of bone carved and stuck on it for tusks and toenails.

Casey also pulls a hundred rupee note from that paper, and when Drucker asks about that, Casey explains that it is his payment for taking the elephant to Bombay and delivering it to a man with “speckled hands.” The money is also so Casey will keep his mouth shut about the arrangement. He tells Drucker that he delivers a new elephant every three weeks to the man in Bombay, and that otherwise he has no idea what is going on. "Don't know and don't care," says Casey. "All I want is the rupees. They look like plain elephants to me." Then, sobering up enough to realize he has said too much, Casey gathers up the elephant and its wrapping and leaves.

Drucker himself has sobered up a bit. The remark about the man with the speckled hands has nudged a deep memory in his mind. He resolves to spend his remaining days in Ceylon not selling parts for Purtron but to attempt to discover what it is about those elephants that make them so valuable…

 As John D MacDonald stories go, “The Flying Elephants” is fairly primitive, which is certainly understandable given the fact that it is very early JDM. What qualities the writing has in evocative and exotic locale are more than offset by the real lack of characterization that would come to be a hallmark of MacDonald’s writing. Also, the plot is pretty obvious and the ending, meant to be a surprise, is anything but. (I guess you could say that about 95% of all pulp magazine stories.) The main recommendations for this story, apart from satisfying the cravings of the completists, is in its illustration of MacDonald’s development as a writer. He has a long way to go from “The Flying Elephants” but he got there pretty quickly.

Also of note is the MacGuffin of the story. Students of MacDonald and, especially, readers of the Travis McGee novels, will have a special interest in those elephants. Without saying too much -- okay, this will be too much for McGee fans, but here goes -- suffice it to say that Sergeant Dave Berry may have heard about the football-sized mastodons and adapted them slightly…

MacDonald would go on to have several stories published in each of the four “crown jewels” of the pulp world, although Argosy was no longer a pulp magazine by the time his name graced its table of contents. It had ceased being published as a pulp in 1943 and gradually morphed into a men’s adventure magazine. Adventure followed the same suit in 1953, while Blue Book (or Bluebook) didn’t change until 1960, although its metamorphosis began as far back as the early 1950’s with an increasing reliance on non-fiction articles. Even Short Stories could not avoid this fate. After an increasing reliance on reprints -- stories from both its own earlier issues as well as those from other pulp magazines -- It made it all the way to 1959 before becoming Short Stories for Men. After that it quickly folded.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

“The Flying Elephants” has never been anthologized or -- as far as I can tell -- reprinted since its original appearance in 1946.