Monday, November 2, 2015

The Man Who Writes Those Travis McGee Stories

On October 13, 1969 filming began on the first-ever Travis McGee movie, Darker Than Amber. Shot on location in Bahia Mar, where the fictional Busted Flush was moored, the film featured Rod Taylor in the title role. There is much background on the film in Hugh Merrill's JDM Biography The Red Hot Typewriter if one is interested. The opening day of filming was attended by numerous journalists and MacDonald himself showed up to check out what was going on.

One of those journalists was Mike Baxter of the Miami Herald, and he briefly interviewed MacDonald and managed to get the author to agree to a more extensive sit-down when he (JDM) returned home to Sarasota. The result was a fairly extensive piece that was published in the Herald's Sunday supplement Tropic in late 1969 and was picked up by some other papers a few months later. One of those newspapers was my old hometown rag The Washington Post, which ran the piece in its own Sunday magazine, Potomac, under the title "The Man Who Writes Those Travis McGee Stories." (I don't know what the original title was in the Herald but am pretty sure it wasn't this.) I've transcribed the piece in its entirety and present it below. For all its mistakes and inaccuracies I think you'll agree that this is a step above most JDM interviews.

Australian actor Rod Taylor jack-in-the-boxed out of a small Starcraft trailer onto the pier at the Bahia Mar marina in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He and John D. MacDonald exchanged polite bellows.

"I'm taking over now" Taylor boomed. "He's my responsibility."

"At last, they'll no longer confuse me with him," MacDonald said. "Now you'll be McGee and I'll be MacDonald."

Him was Travis McGee, a creation of MacDonald's fiction, master of a houseboat named Busted Flush and holder of the producers' $2 million stakes in the box-office sweepstakes. To watch Taylor and MacDonald was to witness a ceremony of exorcism. With each forward frame of 35mm film the Aeroflex cameras of Cinema Center Studios were stripping the fantasy figure of McGee from MacDonald and his books, and wrapping it around the wedge-shaped and willing shoulders of Taylor.

When the movie, Darker Than Amber, makes its M-rated debut next year, both Taylor and millions of Mature Audience voyeurs can be McGee, for all MacDonald professes to care. "I hate to disappoint people," he said, and laughed easily and loudly, the sound like gravel rattling on cardboard. The writer known to friends as "John D" was in a sportive mood.

Movie rights are earning a "sizeable five-figure sum" and a box-office percentage, and he has also sold options on the other McGee books at pyramiding rates.

This alone should forgive him his excesses. "It so happens, man, I stay pretty loose," he said as he arrived at Bahia Mar, and he certainly looked loose enough in a pastiche of Miami Beach styles: Swedish nautical cap, canary slacks, a rose-bowled pipe propped in the corner of a grin, dark glasses despite the overcast day.

McGee was born in 1964 as a full-grown 6-foot-4, 212-pound freelance adventurer. In five hectic years, he has piloted the Busted Flush through Gulf and Gold Coast waters and 11 bestselling paperbacks. Gifted with a Rod Taylor physique and a John MacDonald intellect, McGee salvages private property in extra-legal situations for half its value, which, he tells Victims of Injustice, is better than nothing. For both of them. But sometimes, a rampant sentimentalist, he forgives the fee. In a McGee book, the victim is usually attractive.

That McGee is not MacDonald does not lessen the utility of contrast, instantly apparent on flipping over a paperback from a blue-eyes, gold-skinned McGee line-cut on the frontcover to the photography on the back of a bespectacled, balding writer.

Unlike McGee, whose self-expressions are physical and often pontifical, the 6-feet-nothing MacDonald just writes: books, magazine articles, short stories. Anything, it seems, but a bad check. In five years he has written McGee into third place behind Perry Mason and Mike Hammer in the suspense league, and third place is still big money.

MacDonald was a struggling lieutenant colonel in the Office of Strategic Services, nearly 30 and without a line in Who's Who, when he sold his first story. That was 59 novels and 37 million readers ago. Except for the Bible, there is not much left to catch up with. With prudish disavowal of its literary importance, MacDonald produced a clipping that said only four living authors have outsold Fawcett Publications "paperback king."

One is Mickey Spillane, author of Mike Hammer. Spillane visits MacDonald's Gulf Coast home at intervals, and both write mysteries. As craftsmen, however, they are as close as Eldridge Cleaver and Sam Spade. Even Spillane can recognize the gulf. "I am a writer; you are an author," The Mick once told MacDonald. There is more in that than semantic nonsense.

MacDonald writes on a beige IBM Selectric as if Doom were about to unplug it in the last great denouement. A MacDonald week in his adopted home town of Sarasota has three fixed points: The Plaza for lunch Friday, his color television set on Mission: Impossible nights, and the Selectric. He devotes a business-like seven-to-nine hours a day writing, doing it until the lunch hour, then doing it again until the cocktail hour. Fast subtraction shows that this leaves "too little time, dammit" for other pursuits.

Travis McGee's debut in The Dark Blue Goodbye, first of a rainbow of titles, was hailed by Saturday Review as "a publishing event." The late Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, automatically bought each new McGee as it appeared, high praise in anyone's mystery book.

According to his 18 lines in Who's Who, MacDonald won the 1955 Benjamin Franklin award for the best short story of the year, and in 1964 the Grand Prix de Literateur Policiere. In non-fiction, his No Deadly Drug account of the Coppolino murder trial became required reading at Harvard Law School.

Godot could have been found earlier and easier than MacDonald that day at Bahia Mar, but once arrived at Ft. Lauderdale, MacDonald shrugged permission to visit him at his eight-month-old hideaway on Siesta Key. He affirmed, however, a fondness for privacy.

Smiling, he described his moat, barracuda, cross-beamed lasers and a wife who patrolled with a Whammo slingshot.

In their place were found only two aging Fords and, on stilts above them, an airy "Early Fish House," design-built big and modern. The house does have an elaborate security system, however, and privacy in a glass-walled house is assured with curtains of outdoor lights turning the glass into one-way mirrors. It is a privacy not even Travis McGee is allowed to violate. "You know," MacDonald said, "when I originally started the McGee thing, I was apprehensive about that. He could have been based in Sarasota. But if successful it would have been right in my own backyard. So I put him in Ft. Lauderdale."

Before moving in April to his hideaway, MacDonald said, his work was interrupted by a recurring incident: "You'd see some man stop, having an argument with his wife, nod his head, then shuffle up to the house with a couple of books. It'd be immoral not to sign them. Then you chat five minutes, come back and wonder where in hell you were."

He began talking about ego and introversion. "I'm an ambivert," he said. His eyes glazed in introspective thought and his gaze swiveled slightly toward the Gulf beyond the veranda. He found the thought he searched for, and looked back. "That's the way I think of myself. A very introverted kid with moments of manic extroversion."

There is also in MacDonald an ambivalency toward sentiment. Few novelists write with his power of violence. And few writers have his weakness for chain letters, for inside jokes (he named an Amber character after his agent) and for pets.

MacDonald was born on July 24, 1916, the son of Eugene MacDonald, who "was in financial stuff with small corporations" in Sharon, Pa., and Utica, N.Y. John earned a degree in business administration at Syracuse and a master's from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration.

Until he sold his first story in 1946 as an Army officer in Ceylon, writing fiction because censors redlined all meaning from letters home to his wife, he planned a business career. Vestiges of business training appear in his home office -- a Xerox 660 copier used in his voluminous researches; an adding machine, and Travis McGee in the unfinished 12th manuscript.

He admits that McGee, now rich and famous, may be near retirement.

"I said I'd do 10 when I started," MacDonald said. "I really screwed up Indigo (the 11th). So now I'm doing 12 -- as a matter of personal pride, to have it real solid. After 12, I'm not going to arbitrarily say again that I won't do anymore. If I come across an idea I think could work into a McGee, I'll do it in some other form. I like to write. I don't want to foul my own nest by turning writing into a dogged chore."

According to MacDonald, McGee is "a separate, entirely distinct individual. He has opinions that are far more black-and-white than mine. In some basic areas I don't agree with him. I think he's flawed in ways I'm not. He has not really accepted the necessities of being a grown-up boy."

"I'm trying to change McGee imperceptibly," MacDonald explained later, "in line with what I think would normally happen. But you can run into trouble and change a guy too much, like John Creasey did with the Gideon series."

McGee will never die like Sherlock Holmes; money has bought him that much. "I wouldn't want to accept the commercial stupidity," MacDonald said. "Once he's dead, all the other books become history. Anyway, before I could kill him I'd have to go up to New York and kill all the people at Fawcett Publications who have anything to do with it."

MacDonald can pension McGee off without affecting his workload. While completing McGee No. 12, he is working on three other novels in his unorthodox way, moving from one to another at the first outbreak of boredom.

He writes without outlining, weaving intricate plots and large casts into the empty middle separating a known beginning and a known climax.

He writes on expensive 25-pound bond paper. "I think the same situation is involved as with painting and sculpture. If you use the best materials you can afford, somehow you have more respect for what you do to it."

He seldom edits with pencil. "I rewrite by throwing away a page, a chapter, half a book, or go right back to the beginning and start again."

He is also a happy writer, another unorthodoxy. "I enjoy the hell out of writing," he said, "because of the rare times when it really works good. It's like an Easter egg hunt. Here's 50 pages, and you say, 'Oh, Christ, where is it?' Then on the 51st page, it'll work. Just the way you wanted it to, a little better than anything in that same area ever worked before. You say 'Wow! This is worth the price of admission'."

His wife of 30 years, Dorothy Prentiss MacDonald is an artist whose predominantly blue oils cover much of the house's white-stained cedar walls. While he talked, she emerged from the kitchen with Tuborg and Heineken beers and, for MacDonald, a Bloody Mary, which he chased with milk and an untipped Gaulois cigarette. There is a faint but noticeable deference in her attitude toward her husband.

MacDonald observed that the interview had cost him his Plaza luncheon: "Now don't you feel bad?"

Like Simenon, Doyle and others, MacDonald is an intellectual or perhaps a pop-intellectual, who quotes The Lonely Crowd and Games People Play. But he writes without pandering in a genre that is known more for its surrender-or-die dialogue than Travis McGee's rough eloquence.

"Suspense is like a mental exercise," he said. "Once you accept the limits of what you're doing, you try to do the best you can within those limits. And you're not going to be patronizing anybody. The only patronizing for anybody would be the decision to accept those limits."

In a written interview with a French doctoral student, MacDonald invoked examples from Camus to John Updike, dichotomized the Judeo-Christian ethic into a pair of neat dilemmas, and questioned the classifying of "straight" novels.

"If all this sounds as if I am being all too terribly artsy about crime fiction," he wrote, "I ask just one question: How much of the great Faulkner trilogy could be so categorized?"

So MacDonald writes, and Travis McGee rights wrongs. The lingering after-vision from Sarasota is double: the twain shall never meet. McGee, who may be retiring, is not MacDonald, who will never retire. After all, there is still Perry Mason and Mike Hammer. And the Bible.


  1. That's a great article. I wonder what he meant when he said he really screwed up "Indigo".

    1. Frank, JDM has long been on record of disliking INDIGO. He wrote Dan Rowan once he finished it: "Well, that was such a sickeningly bad book I did that it depressed me all to hell and I finally got grown up and rewrote it just about the whole effing thing, and now it is medium okay..." Then, after it was published he told Rowan, "Since my visit [to Chicago] they have sold...24,000 copies... which is a shame because it is, forsooth, a pretty bad book, friend." I'm not sure why he disliked it so, perhaps it was his treatment of hippies, perhaps that over-the-top bad guy.

  2. Thanks for posting this; interesting read. The bit about Ian Fleming buying each new McGee as it came out isn't all it's cracked up to be--Fleming died the year McGee was "born," so he couldn't have gotten more than 3 or 4 of 'em...

    1. Ha Ha. That didn't even register with me when I typed it, Mike. Fleming was dead by the time the fourth entry in the series was published.

  3. What a great interview! I love these insights into the home life of JDM.

    Here is the Ian Fleming quote, referring to MacDonald books in general, with a nod to the McGee series:

    "I automatically buy every John D. MacDonald as it comes out, and not even MacDonald's invention of a serial character, with all the dangers which I personally know so well, will deter me from continuing to do so."

    1. Thank you for finding that quote, Chris. Obviously Fleming was a JDM fan long before McGee.

  4. A handful of revealing glimpses of a JDM I did not know about...well worth the read.

    One question?

    Chasing a Bloody Mary with milk???????????????????????????????

    1. Yeah... that turned my stomach when I read it.