Monday, August 12, 2019

Literary Giants Seeking Refuge

In 1976 the Tampa Times published a group of brief interviews with several of the noted American authors who had moved to the west coast of Florida to live. These writers included Richard Glendinning, Erkine Caldwell, MacKinlay Kantor and, of course, John D MacDonald. Here is a transcription of MacDonald’s section of the piece, along with the article’s introduction. It included a photo of JDM I had never seen before.

MacDonald was 60 years old and months away from publishing his soon-to-be blockbuster novel Condominium.

Literary Giants Seeking Refuge: The Suncoast Has Become Their Haven

A Pulitzer Prize-winner. A recipient of the Newbery Medal for children's literature. Travis McGee's "papa.” The literary paver of Tobacco Road. They all live and work on Florida's suncoast.

So does a nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen award, and a novelist who at 22 was the youngest editor of a national magazine.

From Dunedin to Clearwater, St. Petersburg to Sarasota, the likes of Erskine Caldwell, Natalie Savage Carlson, Irene Hunt, Richard Glendinning, John D. MacDonald and MacKinlay Kantor have settled discreetly to live and work.

Chances are, though, you'd have a tough time locating these living legends because most of them seek to lose themselves in the thick underbrush of Siesta Key or on the outskirts of Dunedin.

John D. MacDonald settled in Sarasota and found that "there were so many other artists that I wasn't a novelty.”

MacKinlay Kantor lives reclusively on Siesta Key. If you are lucky enough to find him you will have twisted your way through a few brambles and branches.

Somewhere between Dunedin and Clearwater lives Natalie Savage Carlson, who has lived all over the world. Mrs. Carlson, whose children's books have been translated into hundreds of languages, settled there because "we had a lot of friends in here and we liked the area."

Erskine Caldwell was "looking for a quiet place to settle."

Despite their professed passion for privacy, these writers and others who make up the suncoast's network of authors granted interviews to discuss their successes, their work and their philosophies of life. Cindy Licht/Times Staff.

John D. MacDonald

It would be hard to determine who has the bigger following, Travis McGee or his daddy, John D. MacDonald.

McGee - a character in a series of MacDonald novels -- is a detective who chases after pretty girls, stolen goods and, of course, the bad guys.

His creator is a character, too.

Just vulnerable enough to be appealing, he, like McGee, prefaces his conversations with slang.

"You know there aren't many good newspaper reporters. I had a friend in the business - can't remember that sucker's name," he said.

He has a raffish chuckle - the kind that makes you think he is having private conversations with himself.

Writing is a 9-to-5 job for MacDonald. He loves writing, but he considers it a business.

The sin of sloth hangs over his head. He believes in the domino theory: if he allows himself the luxury of a day off, he may not go back to his work the next day...or the next.

At the edge of his desk was the manuscript of his new novel, Condominium, which depicts the horrors of a powerful hurricane hitting Florida's populated west coast. It took him two and a half years to complete.

MacDonald didn't begin writing until age 30 "because I never thought I could write. I used to think it would be wonderful to be a writer instead of me."

After earning a master of science degree in business administration from Harvard, and after being fired from several jobs, MacDonald joined the army and wrote his first short story.

Has his writing changed in the past 30 years?

"I think I have more control this year than I did last year," he said. "I think of myself as constantly changing. It's hard to explain. It's like when you have a conversation between two characters and instead of having to write, they said such and such, but they REALLY THOUGHT something else, I am getting better at conveying their inner feelings without really verbalizing them."

MacDonald works on three or four novels at one time. When he gets stuck on one he goes on to another. "And it seems when I go back to the first it's unstuck...I like to see clean, white paper and to know that I'm going to spoil it with God knows what."

Tidbits of his traveling experiences are woven into the fiber of MacDonald's writings.

"I couldn't have McGee go to Granada if I hadn't spent three weeks there," he said. "Little details are important, like the big almond tree in front of one of the hotels where old brown dogs lie around sunning themselves. You can tell when someone is faking it."

He's a good one to talk about faking it. MacDonald claims he gives each interviewer different answers to the same questions each time they're asked — just to keep himself from answering questions the way he thinks the person wants them answered.

"Some writers have a tendency to do this," he said. "Then they begin to believe the stuff themselves.

"See, I've been lying to you all along."