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.