Monday, May 21, 2018

JDM on Spillane (and Other Things)

On Friday, February 19, 1955 John D MacDonald was invited to participate in an open discussion on writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The affair was a regular weekly thing and was called the English Coffee Hour. Supervising was FSU English instructor John H Lawler who, along with science fiction author Mack Reynolds, dished out the questions. The get-together was covered by the local Tallahassee Democrat, which ran the story headlined "Spillane Creates Mythological Characters Says MacDonald”. JDM's discussion of Spillane takes up less than two paragraphs of the story, but the headline is not surprising. Spillane was a Big Thing back in the early 1950’s, and his story intersects with that of MacDonald’s, which I’ll talk about after presenting a transcription of the article. For reference, in February 1955 JDM had just had published his thirteenth novel Contrary Pleasure the previous year and would see the appearance of number fourteen -- A Bullet for Cinderella -- in July. On the short story front, his excellent “The Killer” had just appeared in the January issue of Manhunt, and in May one of his true masterpieces, the award-winning “The Bear Trap,” would be published in Cosmopolitan.

Spillane Creates Mythological Characters Says MacDonald

Mickey Spillane's popularity stems from his ability to make "the little man with fallen arches" become a "mythological beast," John D MacDonald, novelist and short story writer, told guests at the English Coffee Hour Friday afternoon in the Westminster House at Florida State University.

"Spillane has created a completely impossible human gening who tears up gangsters and throws them around the room," MacDonald said. "Its modern mythology." Concerning the sadism found in Spillane by some critics MacDonald said "There is more sadism in Mother Goose."

MacDonald was questioned by John H Lawler, FSU English instructor, and Mack Reynolds, science fiction author who is visiting in Tallahassee.

The best way to learn to write is by writhing, MacDonald said. During four months of terminal leave following army service overseas MacDonald wrote some 800,000 words to get started on a writing career. While overseas he had sent his wife a story instead of a letter -- "we were censored 100 percent by both the British and Americans and you couldn't put anything of interest in a letter" -- and his wife sold the story to the old Story magazine. He decided the $25 she got for it was "easy money."

Of his 12 published novels, two are science fiction. Forty ar fifty of his short stories also are in that field which he said is "free of taboos you find in other sorts of magazines."

"If a magazine of mass circulation used a story about a man with a wooden leg, and three people in West Overshoe, Minn., don't like it, the editor will never again buy a story with a wooden leg," MacDonald said by way of illustrating the rules of various publications. "Mass circulation magazines have so many taboos you can't say anything. But most science fiction fans are crackpots and you can get away with just about what you want.

Reynolds remarked that as long as the author put his story "a thousand years from now on Mars he was safe. MacDonald answered that an author also can say a lot about here and now if he puts the story in a different "frame," so it won't offend too many individuals.

Concerning his writing techniques MacDonald said that he doesn't revise -- or if he does, it's in his own way. "If something mechanical goes wrong I throw away the page. If it's something structural, I may throw away four or five pages." But when he reaches the end, the first draft is the final one. He cannot go back and replace one word without another and then retype the story. "It sounds flat," he said.

His main difficulty is finding where to start. "It can't be too close to a main point of action, or you need too many flashbacks. If it's too far away, the story starts out slowly," he said. But once he gets the ending and the beginning he "plays the middle by ear."

MacDonald warned against "adopting a patronizing attitude toward a field you want to enter. If you're going to do a story on young love for one of the slick magazines, with a happy, upbeat ending, forget your superior attitude and write the best love story you can."

When you write for a certain, be sure it is one that you can read in with pleasure, he advised. He added that probably the reason the "confession" magazines pay so well is the scarcity of writers in that field. "Those who like to read that sort of thing can't write" was the way he put it. Then he added the exception to the rule was writing for comic books as "their readers can't recognize a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

In answer to a question he said that his favorite American author changes for year to year, but that right now he thinks the best bit of writing he has run across in a long time is the screenplay for the film On the Waterfront.

To be good a piece of writing has to be on different levels, he said. He finds them in Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, early Irwin Shaw and "some of that little man Capote." Reynolds mentioned John Collier as another who can "write on different levels."

MacDonald, who comes from Sarasota, was greeted at the coffee hour by a delegation of Sarasota students.

Leading with the Mickey Spillane quote was a way to sell newspapers, for the popularity of Spillane in the world of postwar popular fiction cannot be overstated. His first novel, I, the Jury was published in hardcover in 1947, followed by a paperback version the following year. Between the two of them it sold six and a half million copies in the United States alone. It’s protagonist, a private eye named Mike Hammer, was cut from the same cloth as many of the detectives introduced in the pulps, including Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but the writing was different and so was the action. There was sex -- lots of it, more so than in most other mystery novels of the time -- and the violence, well… the violence, which seems pretty tame to modern readers, was extreme and nearly over the top, eliciting cries of outrage from the literary community. They used terms like “atrocious” and “nauseating,” and even Spillane’s own father referred to his work as “crud”. That these beacons of high culture would even deign to mention Spillane’s name at all was a testament to his books’ popularity, their effect on popular writing of the day and on the culture in general. Raymond Chandler’s reaction is illuminating in that it shows not only the contempt, but the amazement at the success of Spillane’s work. In a letter to publisher Dale Warren in 1952 he wrote:

“...the taste of the public is as mysterious as the taste of critics. Look at the success a fellow called Mickey Spillane is having, a success comparable to that in England of James Hadley Chase, the distinguished author of No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Mickey Spillane is just about on the same low level of phoniness, and as far as I’m concerned just as unreadable. I did honestly try to read one just to see what made them click, but I couldn't make it. Pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff. It isn’t so very long since no decent publisher would have touched it. I suppose it won’t be long until the Book of the Month Club selects a handsomely produced volume of French postcards as its contribution to the national culture. This Spillane stuff, so far as I can see, is nothing but a mixture of violence and outright pornogoraphy. He and his publishers have had the courage, if that is the correct word, to carry these a little further than anyone else without interference from the police. I can’t see anything else in it. This sort of thing makes the home boys with their libraries of elegant erotica seem rather nice people.”

Knowing what we know about John D MacDonald, a man of strong opinions he was not afraid to present, it might be expected that his own thoughts on Spillane’s books would mirror that of fellow moralist Chandler, but if that was the case he kept it well hidden. For John D MacDonald owed Spillane a huge debt of gratitude, one that was inadvertent on Spillane’s part but went a long way toward launching MacDonald as a bestselling author.

When MacDonald’s 1952 novel The Damned was in galleys prior to publication, Ralph Daigh, the storied editor at Fawcett, loaned a copy to Spillane to read. He returned it later and told Daigh that it was a good book and that he wished he had written it. Daigh quickly wrote that remark down and asked Spillane to sign and date it, which he did. When the first edition of The Damned appeared in May of that year, splashed across the cover artwork was a banner which read, “I WISH I HAD WRITTEN THIS BOOK! -- MICKEY SPILLANE. That The Damned was, and still is, MacDonald’s best selling novel, is in no small part due to that unintended promotion. (I’ve often wondered how many Spillane fans bought The Damned, expecting a Hammer-like novel, only to be graced with the subtle nuances and brilliant characterizations of MacDonald’s first multi-perspective opus.)

MacDonald and Spillane went on to be friends of sorts. Spillane visited the MacDonald’s frequently in their Florida home and they exchanged letters throughout their lives. MacDonald once poked fun at Spillane in his early novel The Neon Jungle, where one of the more obtuse characters reads and enjoys a Mike Hammer book. And Spillane was one of the few people on earth to have been privy to the progress of the final, never-to-be-completed Travis McGee novel.


  1. Did Spillane ever comment on the last novel of leave any clues about it?

    1. No, MacDonald wrote a brief sentence about its progress in a letter. There's no evidence that Spillane ever replied.

  2. Steve, thanks for this. My Zack Taylor series is direct homage to John D. and Travis, and pros have said I'd be a top Gold Medal author if I was writing 50 years ago. My latest even has a plot twist from a Mickey Spillane book, so combining the two is a thing I'll do.