Monday, March 4, 2019
Mystery Scene Interview
In issue Number 16, published sometime in 1988 -- two years after the death of John D MacDonald -- Mystery Scene published an interview with JDM, conducted via mail by fellow author George Vasallo. There was no introduction, no explanation as to why this interview had never been published before, or even a mention of when the interview took place. Based on the books mentioned by MacDonald, one can place the time as close to late 1983-early 1984. The answers provided are to a specific list of questions sent to the subject, and one can tell when JDM is impatient or even exasperated by the banality of the subjects he is asked to comment on. Still, when his interest is piqued, he rambles on. His observations on the fragmentation of culture in the United States was downright prescient.
INTERVIEW: JOHN D. MACDONALD
What is the significance of the use of colors in each Travis McGee title?
Years ago I sat in The Red Devil, a New York restaurant and saloon, now long gone, with friends and agent and writers and we tried to think of some way to clue the reader that he could have read the book before. Didn't want to number them, because I wanted the McGee series to be readable in any order. We discussed musical terms, months of the year, finally all agreed that colors would be the best and easiest to remember.
Have you contemplated having McGee die?
No, not really. I have threatened it, but it would be too unfair to readers who are just now discovering the fellow.
What observations do you have on all of the other detective fiction authors who have followed you? Do any really impress?
I do not read all of them, so there may well be some I would like as well as I like Ross Thomas, Robert Parker and Elmore Leonard. Their work has immediacy, strong sensory images and a wry view of the world which pleases me.
How do you feel about the current state of publishing in America?
Very tough for the new writer. Hard cover costs are high, but people forget that dinner for two at a decent restaurant is going to run a lot more than a good book. Which taste is going to linger the longest -- the porterhouse you ate, or The Little Drummer Girl. Publishers intent on bottom line, and too intent on having every book make money. Paperbacks getting too expensive. But these things correct themselves. There are lots of good regional publishers who are into modern methods -- like typesetting from the information on the 5 1/4 inch disk out of the writer's word processor. Nothing can replace written word. It is the only way that complex and subtle ideas can get from one skull into the next.
Where do you and McGee differ? Where are you and Meyer alike?
Too difficult a question to answer. I took the MMPI as myself and McGee and Meyer. Here is a psychologist's interpretation (enclosed). I cannot give permission for you to use any direct quote.
Is it particularly difficult to be the villain in your stories?
Or in life? Come on!
What makes the better villain .. a businessman gone bad or a pure psychopath?
The very best villain would be a little of both.
Is McGee's lifestyle attainable?
According to the mail I get, it is not only attainable, some of the readers have added flourishes McGee never contemplated.
When was the time that you made your "breakthrough" to become one of the best known and best-selling authors in America? Was any one event of primary importance?
When the McGees began to pop up on the New York Times list, Knox Burger who had edited many of them when he was at Fawcett, called me up to congratulate me, and told me I had achieved fame the same way the Chinese devised the ancient water torture. I had dropped books on the head of the public, one at a time, until they finally noticed.
Where do you perceive the U.S. heading culturally?
Into a further fragmentation. Contemporary education is depriving many of the richness of any cultural experience. The elite go kiting off after fads and fancies, and the professors in the art areas so subdivide their specialties, that, as has been said, each year they know more and more about less and less until finally they know everything about nothing.
What is your favorite leisure pursuit?
Varies from year to year. Have no favorites. Photography, music, collecting, backgammon, chess, conversation, travel.
As a world traveler, what observations do you have on other countries that you have visited?
One basic observation. It is ridiculous to go trotting about the world and come back with the idea that people in all places are just like us and want the same things. There is no common humanity, no gauge that fits us all. The Kashmiri Hindu and the Kenya tribesman and the Amsterdam merchant, were they miraculously given a common language would find their concepts of life and time and destiny so variant, meaningful discussion of ideas would be impossible. Only when you clearly understand this can you begin to comprehend, for example, a group of schoolteachers in Iran setting fire to a theatre and burning hundreds of their young pupils to death. Or a fakir who has sat in the public square all day all his adult life, following the passage of the sun that has burned out his eyes, by the feel of the heat on his face. My best observation about other countries and cultures is that the more you learn about them, the less you comprehend them. The instant tourist has no doubts.
Is there a working title for the new McGee? What type of situation will we find him in?
Not yet. He will be tracking down a pirated cruiser in the Bahamas, manned by the drug merchants who slew the owners.
The McGee novels contain violent encounters which appear quite genuine. Have you ever found yourself in as tough a situation as you put McGee in?
I have been hit in the face. It makes me throw up.
How much time goes into writing a McGee novel? What are your working habits?
For a McGee, from three to seven months.
Does any one of the McGee novels stand out in your memory? Why?
Cinnamon Skin. It got both me and McGee over a mutual malaise which had dimmed the prior three novels.
Publishing today shows little venture capital and shrinking publishing lists. What does this mean to the experienced writer? What does it mean to the novice trying to break into the field?
Shrinking publishing lists, but expanding numbers of titles per year. To the experienced writer this means a sensitivity to new technologies in printing and publishing is essential. To the novice breaking in, it means look to the small local houses.
Your books paint such beautiful pictures of harbor life and sailing? Is it really that idyllic?
At times it is as idyllic as trying to comb your hair while falling downstairs.
There have been numerous love interests for McGee throughout the series. Has McGee's tastes changed over the years? What changes has he noted in women?
They are, by and large, a bit older, more independent, less prone to believe the usual bullshit.
What are some of the pitfalls of fame? Do you enjoy being recognized?
My old friend, now dead, Maximiliano Truzzi, used to be billed by Ringling as the world's greatest juggler. When he was cornered by fans who loved his work, he could always grab the nearest tableware and juggle. What can I do? Write for them? I just have to stand there looking like a kindly real estate salesman. I have gone out of my way to avoid being recognized. My contact with the reader should be through the books, nothing else. Not even this.
If you were to move to another country which one would you choose? Why?
Mexico, because we have lived there before and we like the countryside and the people, and speak broken Spanish.
Millions of us thoroughly enjoy detective fiction. Why does the literary elite always try to belittle it?
For probably the same reasons that the literary elite proclaimed Crime And Punishment a hack job by a hack writer.
Are there plans to put McGee in a new environment in the future?
Not that I know of.
Are hardback books on the way out? Do you foresee format changes in the way your books reach the public?
No. Not when 25-35,000 copies of coffee table art books can be sold at prices from $35 to $65 a pop. When the hard cover folk get off their dead behinds and can take my disks and set type directly from them, after copy editing them on a screen, we can do hard cover books more quickly and more cheaply.
What, if any, responsibility do you have to your readers?
My responsibility to the readers is, once I have recognized the limitations of whatever format I am writing in, to do the best damn job I am capable of within those limits, and, while doing that job, to reflect my own visions of the truth as I saw it at the time of the writing. As I grow and change, my concept of what is real changes as well.
Self-defense is a central theme in detective fiction. Does this also include avenging the lives of those one holds dear?
When there is a direct, demonstrable, emotional involvement on the part of the protagonist, the writer has an easier task keeping tension high.
Quite often someone disappears in a detective story and the entire story revolves around finding him or her. How far would McGee go in probing a client's personal background?
As far as he feels necessary, and as far as is consistent with the character he has acquired in 20 books.
Are you proficient in firearms? Boxing?
I am a respectable marksman with pistol, rifle, longbow and throwing knife. As to boxing, I have lost the edge. No wind and slow reflexes. My mind remembers the moves, but the body won't comply.
What contemporary Americans do you hold in high esteem?
Chuck Yeager, Vonnegut, Updike, Paul Volcker, Syd Solomon, Bobby Fischer, LeRoy Collins, Paul Newman, Joan Didion and Harry Reasoner.
Meyer feels that the world economy is doomed. Do you agree? What can alleviate the situation?
Yep. Unless we dump Keynesian theory and embrace Schlumpeter's vision of the reward to the innovator.
You have spent much time in Mexico. Will Mexico become a "51st state"? Is Mexico a serious threat to the security of the U.S.?
Mexico will never become a 51st state. If we treat that country with the respect and consideration it deserves, and if we each exercise patience, then it can be a useful though frequently troubled relationship. If we keep on patronizing them as if they were some sort of inferior form of life, the whole thing may well blow up in our face.
What new writing projects are you looking at? Do you still enjoy writing as much now as you did earlier?
The more I learn, the more I enjoy it. I am rounding the clubhouse turn on a long novel about an electronic pulpit called One More Sunday.
If John D. MacDonald had not become a writer, what type of vocation do you feel we would now find him in?
Feeding the worms.
What would McGee never do?
Inflict physical, mental or emotional pain for trivial reasons.
What literature do you most enjoy reading?
Almost every kind.
Does McGee have a world view?
He is willing to live in it without too much bitching.
How can we get children once more interested in reading?
Utilize family reading sessions, out loud. Everybody takes a turn. Old classics, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson. Or modern ones like Watership Down. Short sessions, one every night possible, and no cheating and reading ahead to find out what happens next.
Have you ever collaborated on a book?
Yes, the recent Nothing Can Go Wrong with Captain John Kilpack. It worked because his only presence was sixteen hours of cassette tape, all in the present tense, first person and most of it all one sentence.
Do you read reviews of your work?
I read them, but I have no clipping service. Publishers and friends send them along. Once in a blue moon I find a valid criticism that makes sense to me and I use it in future work. Most of it is quite silly -- with the reviewer talking about his own prejudices and life experience rather than the book. The worst kind of review is when the reviewer criticizes the book he wishes you had written rather than the one you wrote.
What do you see in the future for the state of Florida?
An uncontrolled influx of residents who will use up the air, the water and the earth itself, turning the state into condominiums, asphalt, shopping malls and roadside rubbish.
How will the advent of word processing affect the writing profession?
It won't make the writing any better or any worse. It will have the same effect as when the typewriter took over from the quill pen. It merely speeds the process.
How have McGee's attitudes about sex changed over the years, if at all?
I would recommend a re-reading of the collected works.
What irritates McGee the most about people?
Pretension, gratuitous cruelty, self-deceit, inattention to the wonders of life itself.
What was the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Don't tell 'em, show 'em. Bad version: "Fred was a man with a very bad case of body odor." Better version: "As Fred came walking down the country road, a herd of goats looked at him in consternation, then all ran off into a field and began gagging and coughing.”