Monday, August 29, 2016

Utican Writes 300 Stories in 20 Months

Free time continues to be at a premium for me as August moves on into September and I've had little of it to spend writing or working on this blog. Until things settle down I'll try and present  a few old articles from my collection. This week I've transcribed a profile from the May 25, 1947 issue of MacDonald's hometown newspaper, The Utica Observer-Dispatch. The MacDonald family was, at the time, living in an apartment on State Street, the same residence that John returned home to when he left the military after the war. The family had just come back from a winter's stay in Texas and had purchased their first house in nearby Clinton, just off the campus of Hamilton College, and were preparing to move in.

I've added a few footnotes to the text for clarification.

Maj. John D MacDonald has killed 250 men but the deaths are all on paper.

He plotted them deliberately, executed them vigorously, and let the corpses fall in the most logical spots. Then he went on with his stories.

In the past 20 months MacDonald has ground out 300 in a typewriter marathon which New York agents say is more than remarkable when it is considered that MacDonald, who now resides at 1109 State and soon will move to his new home on College Hill, hadn't written a commercial in his life until he got busy with paper and typewriter in the fall of 1945.

The yarns, which have divided themselves into short shorts, short stories and novelettes, flow from the author's typewriter with remarkable speed. He can turn out an average story of 5,000 words in one evening, although he prefers to take a day or two to complete a manuscript.

This month's Cosmopolitan carries his work, "The Pay-Off." His stories appeared earlier in the year in Liberty, Esquire and The Blue Book, and he's written a steady stream of yarns for Shadow Mystery, Black Mask, Dime Detective and Adventure. Another of his short shorts in scheduled to appear soon in Collier's. It's called "A Measure of Intelligence." [1]

The Writer's Digest, the little magazine that authors buy for tips on the profession, invited MacDonald to write an article telling them how he does it.

He finished the piece this past week calling it, "Can This Be Technique?" In it he unfolds his credo on story production. [2]

"I maintain," he observed, "that first of all you've got to tell a story. If you get enough of them on paper some of them are bound to result in sales, and in writing them you also learn what not to do when you turn out the next one."

All of MacDonald's stories have not sold, but 70 of them have. That's considered some sort of record in the opinion of other writers who have struggled along for years before they managed to sell anything. MacDonald thinks that 40 more of those first 300 will sell.

"The balance," he confided, "the other 190, I've put away very quietly in an old box under the daybed in the study so I may use the reverse side for scrap paper." [3]

MacDonald. who was with the "Cloak and Dagger" men in India during the war where he had flown the hump eight times and eaten a great many banquets with high ranking Chinese officers, got a little tired of writing just straight letters home to his wife. So, one of the last letters he wrote he put in story form. When he got back to the states his wife met him at Camp Dix and told him she had sent the story letter to Story Magazine. She handed him a check. This was in September 1945.

"I kicked the idea around in my mind for a while," MacDonald said "and then started turning out stories. I wrote the first one on October 15 of that year." [4]

MacDonald plugged along for nearly three months without selling any of his stories.

"I couldn't understand why they all came back so fast," he remembers.

Then, all of a sudden at the beginning of last year, the stories began to sell. Into the first yarns MacDonald poured his experiences in India. His months in the Orient provided him with authentic background. He had watched Indian natives toss their dead babies into the Jumna River, where they were devoured by giant turtles. He had covered the terrain in the Kunming area of China and hunted dog deer on the border of the jungle.

He'd written quite a number of stories in which India, Burma and China figured before one editor suggested that “it might be well for you to take your pith helmet off and give us a different locale."

When MacDonald returned from India he was appointed executive secretary of the Tax Research Bureau in the Chamber of Commerce Building.

He had been five years in the Army but he was well qualified for the research position. He had attended the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University and the Harvard School of Business Administration. Before entering the Army he was employed in Syracuse and Northern New York by the Commercial Investment Trust Company. His wife is the former Dorothy Prentiss of Poland, NY.

The executive did his writing at night but last summer he resigned to devote his entire time to writing. With his wife and son, Pen, he went to Texas this past winter where he continued to write and mail his manuscripts to his New York agent.

The couple and their son returned three weeks ago. Last week MacDonald bought the house formerly occupied by Coach Prettyman of Hamilton near the top of College Hill. He plans to move there from his State Street apartment some time in July.

The writer believes that local backgrounds, with familiar people as the characters, are just as interesting as any story laid in some far off land. His story in Cosmopolitan employs a problem in municipal government. His first Liberty story, which appeared in January, had a golf course for its locale. It was called "A Hole in None." The second story bought by Esquire had a familiar ring. It's entitled "North on the Parkway."

MacDonald feels that the ultimate secret in story writing is to draw your main character strong enough so that you feel you know him well, so when he is thrown up against an unusual situation he'll carry the plot line along himself.

The writer suggests that the "unusual" situations be obtained from the newspapers.

"You pick up any newspaper and you'll find them," he said. "The situations in themselves may not be too unusual but just put yourself or your character into them and they take on a different light."

In writing fiction for the "slicks," those magazines with the smooth paper, MacDonald tries to select a conflict that is more everyday.

"The character has to be more believable than the dashing gents you create for the pulps," he concluded. "But the line between the two classes of fiction is very thin. I've written stories for the slicks and sold them to the pulps. It works the other way around. That thing in Cosmopolitan, I wrote for the pulps and look where it landed."

[1] MacDonald's first sale to Collier's took place a full two years after this article was written. It was the short story "Looie Follows Me." "A Measure of Intelligence" does not seem to have been published anywhere and there is no record of it in the MacDonald Collection Finding Guide.

[2] "Can This Be Technique?" was either rejected or pulled by MacDonald and was never published. The original manuscript resides in the MacDonald Collection.

[3]  The manuscripts for these early rejected stories were eventually burned by MacDonald and his son Johnny at their Piseco Lake camp.

[4] According to JDM's own records, the short story "The Game" was finished on October 8 of that year, making it, perhaps, the first story -- as a writer -- that MacDonald ever completed.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Getting Personal with John D MacDonald

It's looking like August will be a tough month for me as far as free time goes, so I may miss a week or two in posting something new to The Trap of Solid Gold. In lieu of an original piece, I present below a JDM interview conducted by the Sunday newspaper supplement Family Weekly and published in the May 5, 1985 issue, right around the time The Lonely Silver Rain was coming out. I blogged an excerpt from this interview back in 2011; here it is in its entirety.

John D. MacDonald, the suspense writer whose trademark is the Travis McGee series, attributes the popularity of his books to the nature of his stories: "I'm not interested in who but why. It's psychological depth that I'm working toward." In MacDonald's latest novel, The Lonely Silver Rain (Knopf), Travis McGee takes on a job for an old friend, a seemingly simple assignment for a pro like McGee, but the job turns into a nightmare in the treacherous world of south Florida's drug wars. For once, McGee becomes the quarry. MacDonald has published 71 novels, 5 nonfiction works, and more than 500 magazine stories. His books have sold 75 million copies worldwide. MacDonald and his wife live in Sarasota, Fla., where he was interviewed for FAMILY WEEKLY by Mark W. MacNamara.

MacNamara: Why do we love suspense novels?

MacDonald: The reader always wants to know what happens next, whether he's reading The Brothers Karamazov, David Copperfield or Hemingway. If what happens next is purely physical, then you've got Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer shooting his initials in somebody's midsection. If what happens is spiritual, maybe you're reading biblical chapters to find out what happened with Moses and the Red Sea. If it's intellectual, you're reading to find out maybe whether they are going to discover a cure for herpes. What happens next is the thing that keeps people reading, and the more important the next [thing is], then the more important the work is.

Q: Are yours great books?

MacDonald: The people that I know who write who are terribly concerned with their posthumous reputation are the people least likely to have any. I concentrate on trying to entertain the people reading the books, and if I entertain them, if I can take them out of the life they are in and move them into my environment in the novel for a couple or three hours, mission accomplished, good, that's what I want to do. I don't want to patronize them; I don't want to give them some simplistic junk. I want to have them concerned about the people they're reading about and about the world those people live in.

Q: Are you trying to change them in any way?

MacDonald: I have, let's say, certain moral values and standards that cannot help but appear in my books. I am, in a sense, Calvinistic. I think that the worst that any of us can do is hurt someone else unnecessarily, maybe just to prove that we've got the muscle to hurt them, to hurt them emotionally, to hurt their image of themselves. That to me is sin No. 1, and if that shows through in the books, if I seem to be trying to promote that as a way of life, and if a few people could be moved by it, OK.

Q What books do you read?

MacDonald: I would say that probably over half my reading is in non-fiction, but of the fiction I read, there are only a few who are tilling the same soil I am.

Q: Such as?

MacDonald: Elmore Leonard. And Robert Parker and Ross Thomas. Those three I think are the outstanding contemporary suspense novel people.

Q: How about people like Robert Ludlum?

MacDonald: No. Robert Ludlum, I think he's got a tin ear. He doesn't write good prose. John Le Carre writes good prose. Robert Ludlum plods along in the same kind of dreary style as Leon Uris. You can cover half a page and read the top half and tell exactly what the words are going to be on the bottom. There's no surprise, there's no poetry, there's no magic. He's got a great sense of story, and you can keep a work and a career going with a great sense of story, but it doesn't keep you from being guilty of having a tin ear. A tin ear usually results from a person not having read enough during his or her youth.

Q: If you had to commit a white collar crime...

MacDonald: In other words, all my morals fell in tatters around me...

Q: Exactly. . .

MacDonald: I think I would sell imaginary tax shelters to doctors... I'd go up to maybe western Pennsylvania. I'd have to start with a tiny bit of capital, enough to take an option on a defunct kind of coal mine, one of those little one or two-man operations, then I'd get some beautiful literature printed, and then I'd come down and I'd go to Orlando, Fla., and to Miami, and Ft. Pierce and Sarasota, and I would sell my private tax shelter of a great coal mine in western Pennsylvania to a bunch of urologists. It would be the easiest, safest way to run a con that I know of. Doctors are notoriously vulnerable, and doctors also hate to pay taxes on the money they make, so if you take those two things together, it would be like walking into a pasture and shooting sheep.

Q: How do you get your plots?

MacDonald: I get them everywhere. Analogy? You've got a big cauldron in the back of your head, like a big bubbling stew, and everything that's ever happened to you is in there, everything you've read, seen, touched or believed - everything is in that cauldron. When two things can be related, then they sort of, let's say, agglutinate and float up to the top of the stew where you can skim them off, and wow, there's an idea.

Q: How did you get the name Travis McGee?

MacDonald: He originally started as Dallas McGee in 1963, but then Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, so by the time the first book came out in 1964 he was Travis. I had a hell of a time finding something that seemed to me to work as well as Dallas McGee. I thought that was a nice name. Then [author] McKinley Cantor, now dead, he suggested I peruse a list of Air Force bases. He said they had some very nice names. So I found Travis base in California. So Travis McGee he became.

Q: How has your work changed over the years?

MacDonald: I think I'm simplifying. I'm trying to keep myself further out of it. And trying to get further away from the trite, the cliché. The more amateur a writer is, the more he constantly intrudes his presence on the reader's awareness. I'm trying to do clean, tight prose that isn't self-conscious.

Q: Your greatest work is still to come?

MacDonald: I think that everything I've done is sort of like one long novel and I'm just adding pieces on it. I don't think in terms of greatest, or best, or lasting or whatnot. I think in terms of what I'm about to do next and trying to make it as good as I can.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

MacDonald: As having entertained a lot of people and given them a little different look at the world than they had before.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Red Hot Typewriter: A Second Edition

On August 26 of this year of the John D MacDonald Centenary, a second edition of the JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill will be re-published by Stark House Press. Stark House is a small, independent California publisher of mainly reprints of long out-of-print mystery and suspense novels from the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. With used copies of the original hardcover Red Hot Typewriter readily available, and a digital version for sale for a mere $7.99, why should anyone bother with a new paperback version priced at $19.95?

The Stark House edition represents a significant improvement over Merrill’s original work, with additional material added and many of the author’s original errors corrected. I know this because I was involved with the editing of the new edition and made many of the corrections myself, in addition to editing and amending the book’s bibliography. I came late to the project but, thanks to the miracle of this age of computers, was able to get my contributions included just under the wire. This will be a book that everyone interested in the life and works of John D MacDonald should own.

I’ve been acquainted with Stark House for several years now and have been a member of their Crime Club book club since 2010. Their handsome editions -- usually two or three novels per volume -- line the shelves of my office and have introduced me to many of the authors of crime and suspense who were MacDonald’s contemporaries during his stand-alone era. Writers like Gil Brewer, Margaret Millar, Orrie Hitt, Day Keene, Peter Rabe, Frank Kane, Dan J Marlowe, Wade Miller and Harry Whittington were, for the most part, just names to me before I had the opportunity to actually read their works, novels written in the prime of their careers. Thanks to Stark House I now have a greater understanding of the literary world MacDonald grew up in, the kinds of books he was expected to produce, as well as just simply enjoying the hell out of reading many of these forgotten works.

I first became aware of the upcoming publication of The Red Hot Typewriter back in April, when I read about it in the monthly Stark House newsletter. I immediately contacted Stark House publisher Greg Sheppard to inquire if this was going to be a straight reprint or if additional material would be added. He informed me that the new edition would include two essays, one new and one a reprint, as well as a reprint of a JDM interview conducted back in 1984. The new essay would be written by former JDM Bibliophile editor Cal Branche and would attempt to add some literary understanding to MacDonald’s work, an element sadly lacking in the Merrill original. The other essay was Ed Gorman’s 2013 Mystery Scene article titled “My 10 Favorite John D MacDonald Standalone Novels.” The interview was also conducted by Gorman.

I also learned that Merrill, who had approved of the reprint, passed away from a heart attack in December 2015.

Through some back and forth between me and Greg I eventually ended up offering to reread the biography and provide him a list of the many errors that existed in the original text. I also offered some additional material for the bibliography of the novels and, eventually, an extensive listing of MacDonald’s short stories, something that had been completely ignored in the original. Greg was open to all of these suggestions, so I immediately set about preparing this information. Luckily I had a couple of postings for The Trap of Solid Gold already prepared and ready to post, otherwise the amount of time I spent on this project would have meant complete silence here for the past couple of weeks.

Longtime readers of this blog are no doubt aware of my many criticisms of The Red Hot Typewriter. Merrill wrote the book conducting little original research outside of mining the holdings of The John D MacDonald Collection at The University of Florida. He doesn’t seem to have read any of MacDonald’s vast short story output and relatively few of his novels. Which may have been a good thing, for when he does attempt anything close to literary criticism the results range from the superficial to the downright awful. He makes little attempt to understand or communicate the reason MacDonald’s prose was so timeless and unique, and he never bothers to delve into why JDM’s work  holds a special place in the fiction of his time. The many errors that peppered the original reveal a complete ignorance of the finer points of MacDonald’s work, from citing titles incorrectly to discussing plots that have nothing to do with the story he’s talking about. There are Wikepedia-like backgrounds on subjects ranging from the history of pulp magazines, to the early history of Sarasota, to the American thriller, to the 1952 congressional hearings on pornography in paperbacks and comic books. Most of these are several pages long and bring the narrative to a dead halt, illuminating little about John D MacDonald.

On the other hand, The Red Hot Typewriter offers the most complete, exhaustive and detailed story of the life of MacDonald, his family, his business contemporaries and friends to be found anywhere outside of a university library. Much of this story is brought to life through the thousands of letters MacDonald wrote and received throughout his lifetime, revealing his inner thoughts, hopes, ambitions and fears, so the reader gets to hear this through JDM himself. Many periods of his life, which beforehand were presented in a necessarily cursory fashion, are fleshed out and brought to life by Merrill’s research. This includes his early life, his time in the military, his sometimes-touchy relationships with family members (his sister’s story is a real tragedy), and a mid-sixties fatal attraction that may or may not have happened. My own knowledge of MacDonald’s life and background was pretty extensive after 40 years of fandom, but I learned much about the man by reading and re-reading The Red Hot Typewriter.

I wrote in my 2009 piece on the biography that, despite its shortcomings, The Red Hot Typewriter was “the single most complete story of [MacDonald’s] life and, as such, belongs in every MacDonald fan’s library.” I’ll repeat that claim here and double down on it thanks to the additional material Stark House has added. While the two Ed Gorman entries are both readily available to anyone with an internet connection, the excellent essay by Cal Branche and the additional bibliographic material, not to mention the correction of the errors found in the original, all make this an edition that really should be on every MacDonald fan’s bookshelf.

The Red Hot Typewriter can be purchased, on or after August 26, through the publisher’s website, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and even at your local well-stocked bookstore (they still have those, don’t they?).