Monday, October 28, 2019

Who Will Kill Travis McGee?

On June 10, 1984 the Fort Lauderdale News published an article/interview on John D MacDonald in their Sunday supplement Sunshine. It was a lengthy piece, written by one Patrick Hynan, a Toronto-based journalist who, to his great credit, seems to have been a well-read fan of the author’s works.

Students of MacDonald’s work and life can recite the answers to all of the usual questions asked in these kinds of interviews, and one can tell when MacDonald is treading water, hoping to get the conversation over with so he can get back to writing. Not so here: he had invited the writer into his home and thoughtfully answered even the questions he hated getting, putting a spin on them in a way one doesn’t usually read. Here we learn where MacDonald came up with the method of killing an attack dog and that he really did originally intend for McGee to live in Sarasota. His comments on his hero presage much of the mood of the book he was about to write, The Lonely Silver Rain.

He mentioned, as he often did in later interviews, his mythical “Black” McGee novel, hidden away, half-written, ready to be published to kill off his hero. Unfortunately the editor of Sunshine jumped on this little bit of mischief and built the layout of the piece around it, titling it “Who Will Kill Travis McGee?” and repeating the tease in the table of contents and the caption underneath Tim Kantor’s portrait photo of JDM. Of course, we all now know better.

It’s a good article, and I’ve transcribed it below.

Who Will Kill Travis McGee?

He calls his tales "why-did-its," not whodunits, and likes to think of the Travis McGee novels as "folk dances." Yet the man who has written more than 70 books that have sold nearly 80 million copies around the world since he began writing them in 1950 still doesn't think of himself as a writer. "I'm somebody who has learned to imitate being a writer," he insists, "which is what Agatha Christie once admitted, and which is maybe why I sometimes feel a little schizophrenic. Maybe, I'm like two people ... there's me, John, and there's John the imitation writer over there."

The John who still thinks of himself as an imitator is John D. MacDonald, creator of the famed Travis McGee mystery-suspense series and considered by many of his peers to be the finest mystery writer in the world. But it is those rejection slips from forgotten pulp magazines back in 1946 that preoccupy him now as he sips a Bloody Mary in the large, sundrenched living room of his secluded home in Sarasota.

"I guess I must have written about 800,000 words before I got my first short story accepted," he recalls, "and for the life of me I can hardly remember what any of them were about."

Modestly overlooked by MacDonald is his short story, "Interlude in India," which was written while he was serving with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Ceylon during World War II, some time before he set out to become a professional writer. Because all mail was strictly censored, MacDonald had written and sent the story to his wife, Dorothy Prentiss, as a way of relating some of his observations of India without provoking the censor's heavy hand. "I mean, how many times can you write letters about the weather from that part of the world?” he adds with a quick grin. His wife sent the manuscript to Story magazine, which accepted it and paid $25 for it.

After the war, in 1946, there followed a stream of rejection slips while MacDonald was living with his wife and their young son in a small apartment in Utica, New York, buttressed only by a stubborn belief that, as he relates, "I could break through.” He did - four months later. "I had no idea I could be a writer before I sold that first story," he says. "I had the feeling that writers were some kind of exalted people, that they had some kind of invisible mark on them that made them different from me. If Dorothy hadn't typed up that story and put all that effort into selling it, I guess I wouldn't be sitting down here talking about all this.”

At one time during those four months while he and his family lived off his four-month army termination pay, MacDonald had as many as 30 stories circulating among pulp magazines and, as fast as they came back, new ones would be sent off. "By the time I finally began to break through a little bit, we'd used up the four months and we were about $200 in debt to our friendly grocer. Thank goodness for him!"

At 67, the six-foot-four, white-haired MacDonald has just published his latest novel, One More Sunday, about a fundamentalist Southern church that, he admits, he invented "for fun and profit.” The novel's protagonist is the Rev. John Tinker Meadows, son of the founder of the "Eternal Church of the Believer.” It concerns Meadows' hugely successful electronic ministry, and it deals with one of MacDonald's favorite themes: power corrupts. 

It is the author's first non-McGee book since his 1976 Condominium, a bestseller that did more to arouse people's consciousness about the danger of proliferating condominium development in Florida than the combined efforts of all of the state's politicians and environmentalists.

MacDonald's house lies behind tall Australian pine trees up a long gravel driveway on Siesta Key, a seven-mile-long island with dazzling salt-white beaches and row upon row of condominiums (he filed suit in 1977 to block the construction of one seven-story condo tower). Located about 200 miles northwest of Fort Lauderdale, the house is built on 12-foot pilings (sufficient to withstand the strongest hurricanes) by an inlet facing the Gulf. It is at once secluded enough to satisfy this most private of writers and Edenic enough to be the envy of all naturalists. The large house has only one bedroom --- to discourage "anyone from staying here while I'm writing.”

Stairs lead up to a wooden veranda with a 16-foot overhang that runs completely around the house. Built in 1970, it was designed by Dorothy, who is a well-known local artist.

Inside, a wide, sun-filled corridor filled with paintings and photographs leads to a large, high-ceilinged living room that looks directly on the inlet. To the left is MacDonald's study, a collage in many ways of his career and hobbies: stamp albums, a chess board, an elaborate stereo system whose speakers MacDonald built from a kit, a word processor, and a glossy beige IBM Selectric typewriter. Up a further flight of stairs is his second office with a commanding view of the inlet. Here at a large desk he writes most of his personal and business correspondence (he long ago incorporated himself). Opposite is a shelf where a model of the Miss Agnes, McGee's famous Rolls-Royce pickup truck, stands — a gift from a fervent admirer. Two sleek Abyssinian cats pace the desk, jump off, and return just as quickly with graceful leaps. MacDonald, a noted ailurophile, grins at the commotion. He once wrote a book called House Guests about two of his former cats. And he dedicated another to them: “To Roger and Geoffrey, who left their marks on the manuscript."

“I like cats because, unlike dogs, they don't stick their heads out of the car window and pant like gushing teenagers," he says when reminded about that dedication. "And they'll learn a trick or two, as we do, and then they'll repeat it a few times before they become bored with it. They're independent and they expect you to have a civilized relationship with them."

John Dann MacDonald was born on July 24, 1916, in Sharon, Pa. His father, the son of a handyman, later became vice-president and treasurer of the Savage Arms Company in Utica, N.Y. As a boy, John was as strong-willed as his father; while there was respect between the two, there was little affection. An attack of mastoiditis and scarlet fever at the age of 12 kept John in bed for a year. He then turned to what was to become one of the first of his lifelong hobbies: reading.

A year after graduating from the Utica Free Academy in 1933, MacDonald enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance in Philadelphia. He quit in his sophomore year because, he said, he had the feeling of “not knowing where the hell you are or where you are going or why.” Later, he received a degree in business administration from Syracuse University, where he met and married Dorothy Prentiss.

MacDonald also has an MBA degree from the Harvard Business School, and tried his hand at various businesses, at which he says he was “miserable.” In 1940, he gave up and joined the U.S. Army as a lieutenant.

He joined the OSS in Ceylon and India, operated behind Japanese lines and emerged as a lieutenant-colonel in 1945. Even to this day, he will not talk about what he did in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, though when he's reminded that he once wrote about how to stop a killer dog in its tracks he pauses, thinks for a moment, and admits he was taught how to do it in the OSS by a Shanghai police captain.

MacDonald wrote his first Travis McGee book, The Deep Blue Good-by, in 1964. Since then, his fictional hero has had adventures in 20 colors, including the latest, Cinnamon Skin, published last year.


A filing cabinet in MacDonald's study contains an unfinished manuscript titled A Black Border for McGee. His many fans naturally hope that this tale of McGee's demise will not be published for a long time.

McGee, the persnickety shamus who roams the continent as a self-styled "salvage expert" righting the wrongs of victims (for a fee) and avoiding the love traps of beautiful damsels, is usually to be found at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, aboard The Busted Flush, the old houseboat he won in a poker game with "four pink ones up and a stranger down.”

After 20 adventure books, McGee has achieved independence from "plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, checklists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, Junior Chambers of Commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny."

The first McGee books came about more by accident than any deep need by MacDonald to create a series. Fawcett Gold Medal Books, his long-time publisher, urgently needed a new series after one they had contracted from another writer fell through. By 1962, when Fawcett senior editor, Knox Burger, asked him to come to New York to talk about a new series, 
MacDonald had been attracting more and more impressive reviews across the country. He wasn't thrilled about the idea Burger and other Fawcett editors proposed for a series "because I didn't want to be locked into something that I would find hard to get out of if I didn't like it.”

Originally, MacDonald intended to call his protagonist Dallas McGee. However, while writing the first book, The Deep Blue Good-by, word came of President Kennedy's assassination. MacDonald was so upset by this that he changed McGee's first name to Travis, after the air force base in California. "To this day, whenever I'm driving through Texas, I think twice about going through that city," he says.

MacDonald's deep moral ire and acute social observation have been aroused by New York (Nightmare in Pink); motel cleanliness, aggressive women and renting a car (A Purple Place for Dying); the drugstore and the ruination of cities (Bright Orange for the Shroud); Chicago, the Playboy syndrome and credit cards (One Fearful Yellow Eye); and the decline of San Francisco (which used to be one of his favorite cities) in The Quick Red Fox.

While writing his first McGee book, he admits he had a feeling (“Like one of those twitches you get about something you know is about to happen") that it might be a success and that if it was, “I didn't want him in my back yard. So in the process of writing it, I moved him from the Sarasota municipal pier to Fort Lauderdale."

In 16 of the novels, McGee has been sustained, counseled and aided by his trusted friend Meyer, an economist of international reputation who came aboard the series after the fourth novel. "I had to bring in Meyer then," MacDonald says, “because there was too much interior monologue with McGee talking to himself. I had to have a foil, but I didn't want a clown.”

Meyer lives on an ugly little cruiser called The John Maynard Keynes, moored near McGee's. Through Meyer, MacDonald has probably taught more people about economics than many of America's leading economists. The author pooh-poohs this idea. "The thing about economics is that it's a fascinating science because it's the only inexact science that's so closely tied in with everybody's aspirations. You take the other inexact sciences - sociology, psychology - and you'll find that they don't have that direct, personal 'Oh, my God’ relationship that economics has to our daily lives. A lot of people who were coasting along in the '70s, thinking that all the factories were going to stay open forever, are suddenly terribly interested in economics, in finding out what's happening."

Many fans value the McGee novels for the author's ability to show how things work, as well as for the plots, dialogue and McGee's musings on man, nature, assaults on the environment, villainy and corruption. McGee has taught millions of readers how to caulk a houseboat, how fishing boats work, how geologists explore for oil, and how to travel and survive without credit cards. Additionally, he has offered more than the usual answers to readers' detective questions: how to analyze the decline and fall of Plymouth Gin, develop a near-perfect picture, spot fake rare stamps and doctor a set of books without breaking the law. McGee is a tinkerer in the grand old American tradition because his creator himself passionately wants to know how things work. In MacDonald's upstairs office is the two-volume classic How Things Work, which he calls “my bible.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., his friend and, like MacDonald, one of the original paperback writers of the 1950s, has said of him: "To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen." Dik Browne, creator of the widely-syndicated cartoon, Hagar The Horrible, is one of the regular writers and artists who meet at Merlin's restaurant in downtown Sarasota every Friday lunchtime to play a three-round game of liar's poker, a ritual jointly founded 30 years ago by MacDonald and the late MacKinlay Kantor, author of Andersonville and The Best Years of Our Lives.

Browne, who is considered one of the wits of the table, sees MacDonald about a dozen times a year. "It's astonishing what information he comes up with whenever he comes to the liars' lunch," Browne recalls on the patio of his large apartment on the outskirts of Sarasota.

"He's a fund of arcane information. While we're in the middle of a particularly tense part of the game, he'll suddenly start talking about the possibilities of finding diamonds in Bolivia, say, or, just to break your concentration, he'll casually let you know how to cure the bite of a tsetse fly, or he'll give a brief and very witty discourse on how the gold exchange works in Ghana ... He always has something to say that nobody around the table has ever thought of."

But not all of MacDonald's fans appreciate such detailed information about how things work. Some don't like McGee's musings either, as they were quick to let MacDonald know after this aside of McGee in The Empty Copper Sea:

"If I were the king of the world, I would roam my kingdom in rags, incognito, dropping fortunes onto the people who are nice with no special reason to be nice, and having my troops lop off the heads of the mean, small, embittered little bastards who try to inflate their self-esteem by stomping on yours. I would start the lopping among postoffice employees, bank tellers, bus drivers and pharmacists. I would go onto checkout clerks, bell boys, prowl-car cops, telephone operators and U.S. embassy clerks. By God, there would be so many heads rolling here and there, the world would look like a berserk bowling alley. Meyer says this shows a tad of hostility.”

MacDonald leans back in his chair and roars with laughter when reminded of this and some other McGee broodings. "I can't even begin to tell you what kind of letters I get from all sorts of people, and not just about that one. Some will say, ‘I wish you would just write down the essays, the feelings, the asides and forget about all this junk of people jumping off boats.' Or the next letter will say, ‘Oh, MacDonald, get off your soapbox! Quit boring me! I skip those places, anyway.' I learned a long time ago that the only opinion of my work that matters is mine. If I'm pleased with something, okay. Now being pleased with something doesn't mean it's the greatest piece of writing.”

He bristles for a moment at the ritual question, "Who is McGee, really?" He looks up after a while, his eyes astonishingly blue behind the glasses. He rubs his right ear and moves the hand to rest on his right knee. “One of the reasons I gave up doing most interviews a long time ago was because that was all everybody wanted to know. I'm not McGee, never have been and don't want to be."

MacDonald pauses for another few seconds. “Well, if you want to know, I see him as a damaged figure. He's dreadfully afraid of being unable to handle any total emotional commitment. It maybe was something that happened to him in his youth, maybe a family situation; he'll get close to committing himself but then withdraw from the brink because there's a coldness that he can't quite overcome — though he'd like to and he doesn't totally recognize what it is that prevents him from overcoming this.

"But aside from the pure mechanics of it, I have to make not only McGee's unwillingness to commit himself plausible, I have to hint at it in all honesty, otherwise the reader will say, 'Gee, MacDonald keeps pushing this guy around. Why doesn't he let him settle down?' McGee can't. And when he dies, there won't be many people around who will mourn him. Oh, there'll be some who would be grateful to him for his help, but he'll end unmourned, unhonored, unsung.” MacDonald indicates with a strong shake of his head that he has told you about as much as he is ever going to tell you about McGee.

Unlike the late Ross Macdonald - his only real rival in the suspense field since the deaths of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler - John D. MacDonald's novelistic interests have ranged far beyond the mystery novel. He has written everything from science fiction (Wine of the Dreamers) to horror (Soft Touch) to whimsy (The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything) to bawdy comedy (Please Write for Details) to true crime reporting of classic vintage (No Deadly Drug). The last work was based on the sensational double murder trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino, and have long been required reading at the Harvard Law School.

Back in the 1950s, original paperbacks were a new idea in publishing, reviewed infrequently by the general press and never by the serious press. For MacDonald, serious critical attention only came when he began publishing in hardbacks towards the end of the '50s. "No, it never bothered me that The New York Times or the others hadn't heard of me," he says. "After all, I wasn't reading them, either. I was too busy writing down here." But he does remember the best advice he ever got that gave him the final kick to finding his own voice. It came from the late Mike Tilden, editor of Dime Detective.

"He said, "John, you tell people too much. Stop telling them. Start showing what you mean. You say, 'He was a very ugly man.' Don't! Instead, you should have children fainting in front of him when he walks down the street. And don't say, 'She was a very clumsy woman.' Show her falling down the stairs, putting her head in the bucket.' I've never forgotten that, though it seems to take most writers too long to learn, and some don't learn it at all.”

MacDonald and his wife have had a 34-year love-hate relationship with Florida: loving it for its climate, fishing and clear pungent smells of orange blossoms coming from groves after a heavy rain on warm, humid summer mornings; hating it for its rapid unplanned growth, its greedy real estate development, its spoliation of the rivers, estuaries and beaches and, above all, for what MacDonald sees as its endless march to pave over whatever remains green. For a long time he carried on a one-man war about these issues, speaking at every opportunity and writing about them in such novels as A Flash of Green and Condominium, which has been compared to a manual for land sharks.

All of MacDonald's novels bear the stamp of prodigious research. In No Deadly Drug, he consulted hundreds of medical dictionaries and books to understand the complex medical testimony of the two long Coppolino trials. For Condominium, he spent nearly two years criss-crossing Florida to research the labyrinthine policies behind condo development.

“When I was researching Condominium, I read every trade periodical and book on land development that I could get my hands on, and I interviewed an awful lot of people around the state. There was one man I talked to, an engineer, who got absolutely livid — not at me, but just at the idea that there could be buildings sitting on a fragile barrier island where the details of their construction in the county commission building department showed them as having fantastically straight foundations; yet the buildings themselves — sitting like boxes on the sand — were, in fact, on top of completely fictitious foundations. The man got madder and madder as he was telling me this and finally he began shouting, "How can these things happen?' It was very illuminating because I knew, listening to him, that he wasn't trying to put me on. He was absolutely emotionally involved.”

MacDonald rises from his chair, shirt dampened by the humid heat of the office, and descends the stairs to the living room. In the hallway, he pauses at a photograph he had taken of Balinese dancers when he and his wife were on a South Pacific cruise. It was shot from a balcony above the swirling multi-colored dancers. It looked good enough to be in Life magazine. He seemed pleased at the admiring interest.

"I learned photography a long time ago," he says, peering more closely at the picture, “because I wanted to remember what places look like. Sometimes you forget, and it's a good thing to have pictures around that remind you what a place truly looked like.”

He never mentioned that, as a first-rate photographer, he has sold many pictures to magazines. "Oh, yeah." He looks up from the picture, a little surprised. "But that was a long time ago." He chuckles.

On the veranda, MacDonald is reminded one last time about that dreaded black border title for McGee waiting in his beige filing cabinet. He grins. "Don't forget, I do have a contract for at least two more McGee books." He continues down the stairs, the temperature in the middle 90s. "Now let's see," he says as he begins walking up the path to collect his mail, "How many more colors are there before you get to black?"

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article. Thanks for transcribing and posting it! Keep up the great work :-)

    ReplyDelete