Monday, March 30, 2020

"Night Ride" and Interview

Black Mask Magazine, the storied detective pulp of the last century, began publication in 1920, created by H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan for publisher Pro Distributors. After a period of great and growing success in the 1920’s and early 30’s, circulation began to decline and the title was sold -- in 1940 -- to Popular Publications, joining other great crime titles there such as Dime Detective and Detective Tales. Black Mask’s final issue was published in July 1951. John D MacDonald, whose first attempts at fiction were published in 1946, had seven stories in its pages.

In 1985 Matthew J Bruccoli and Richard Layman revived the title, and began publishing The New Black Mask as a quarterly trade paperback. It was a mix of (mostly) new short stories by contemporary authors, along with some classic reprints, but it lasted only until 1987 (eight issues) when some kind of trouble over the use of the magazine’s name caused the editors to end the endeavor. Issue Eight contained a “new” John D MacDonald story.

MacDonald had, of course, passed away in December of the previous year, but this issue had obviously been put together many months prior to his fateful trip to Milwaukee. The story JDM provided, “Night Ride,” was, the author explained in an introductory paragraph, an old one written “twenty-four years ago” (1962) and had never been finished or submitted.

“I came upon it last year when I was grubbing around in the old files, looking for something else. I wondered why it had not been published. I cannot remember who thought it needed more work, my agent or I. I suspect that some other project got in the way and it fell through the cracks. So, I gave it a quick polish and sent it in, pleased to find it was not dated."

The story is a good one, concerning a down-on-his-luck man who accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian while he is driving home from a losing late night poker game. The only real problem, apparently unknown to all concerned, was that the story HAD been published before. Walter Shine, in his regular column in the JDM Bibliophile, revealed that it was, in fact, a reprint of MacDonald’s excellent “In a Small Motel,” which appeared in the July 1955 issue of Justice, a crime digest of the era. For years I took this as gospel and, because it was only a reprint, never bothered to hunt down a copy of The New Black Mask.

Now I have, and I can corroborate Walter’s assertion that the story was published before its appearance in The New Black Mask, but it is not “In a Small Motel,” it’s one titled “Scared Money,” which also appeared in Justice, in the October 1955 issue. He got the magazine right but not the story title, which compounds MacDonald’s own error as to both the prior-publication and the date he wrote the story. Also, note that JDM writes that he “polished” the story for its new publication, much as he did for the Good Old Stuff stories. Happily I can report that the changes are minimal.

This was not the only time MacDonald pulled out a story from his files that he thought hadn’t been published and submitted it for publication. In the very same issue of the JDM Bibliophile where Walter Shine called out “Night Ride,” editor Ed Hirshberg published a short story MacDonald had given him for the fanzine a week before he left for Milwaukee. Hirshberg quoted MacDonald as telling him, “Here’s one that was never accepted, but it isn’t too bad and you might as well use it in The Thing. [JDM’s appellation for the JDMB.] There are more in my files, and I will let you have these as time goes on, when the need for copy arises.” This one was titled “The Killer,” and it should have been obvious to everyone involved, since it had been published under that very title in the January 1955 issue of Manhunt. There must have been something askew with JDM’s 1955 sales to crime digests.

Along with the submission of “Night Ride,” MacDonald agreed to a short interview for The New Black Mask. By this time in his life most of the interviews JDM agreed to do were by mail only, answering a set of pre-written questions submitted by the interviewer, and he only answered the questions he felt like addressing. Without the give and take of an actual conversation MacDonald often comes across as impatient, condescending and, at times, outright angry. This interview has such moments, and I’ve transcribed it below.

John D. MacDonald: An Interview

John D. MacDonald was born in Pennsylvania and attended the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, and Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. He served six years in the army in World War II. He is married and has one son and five grandchildren residing in New Zealand. Since he began writing in 1946 and has published seventy-five books and over six hundred short stories, novelettes, and articles. His work has been translated into sixteen languages, and his books have sold over ninety million copies worldwide.

New Black Mask: You began your writing career producing stories for the pulps, a large writers' market that no longer exists. How important was your pulp-writing apprenticeship, and how has the demise of the pulps affected genre fiction—especially the mystery?

John D MacDonald: I began my career writing stories for the pulp magazines as well as the so-called slicks. In the first years-1946 to 1950—I had stories published in American Magazine, Argosy, Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Story Magazine, Liberty, This Week, and the Toronto Star Weekly, in addition to a wide range of pulp magazines. I do not think that the demise of the pulps has affected the quality of today's fiction writing as much as has the demise of those slick-paper magazines, which used so many pieces of fiction each year. In the case of The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Liberty alone, a market for seven hundred pieces of fiction a year at quite good rates disappeared seemingly overnight. Thus in the general field of the novel, in all categories, some very clumsy work is being published. There is no training area. The university courses lean so heavily on subjectivity that the prose becomes muddy and pretentious. I am sent many sets of bound galleys in hopes I will make some useful comment for public purposes. I rarely have to read beyond page ten.

NBM: You were trained as a businessman at Harvard and used your business skills to become one of the most successful novelists of your time. To what degree have the instincts and mindset of the businessman affected your fiction?

MacDonald: I can see only a very remote relationship between my formal education and my writing. I have the instincts of the businessman only when I am involved with the problems of everyday life. I am often shocked at the gullibility of some of the members of my peer group when their innocence in investing in tax shelters is revealed in the press. I do not have the mindset of a businessman. Their scope, like that of doctors and lawyers, is for the most part quite narrow.

NBM: There is a trend now, demonstrated by recent novels of Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard, for writers of mysteries to attempt what Parker calls the “Big Book” -- the novel that will transcend the bounds of genre fiction and attract attention as a mainstream work. Are you concerned that because of your success as a mystery novelist your works will be neglected over the long haul and categorized by critics as ephemeral?

MacDonald: I think that trying to puff a small story into a big book is a mistake. Books and short pieces of fiction should be permitted to find their own proper length. My most recent novel, Barrier Island, is not long. Knopf expressed dismay that it was not a thicker book. I did the story the way it felt right to me. Puffing it would have upset the rhythm of it. I must confess to being a little distressed by your patronizing tone in categorizing me as a mystery novelist. We Americans feel more comfortable with categories and filing systems, and butterflies pinned to the board in proper order of species, I guess. I am pleased to write novels of mystery and suspense, of course. But at the risk of boring you, here is a list of my published novels which do not fall into that category: Wine of the Dreamers (1951), The Damned (1952), Ballroom of the Skies (1952), Cancel All Our Vows (1953), All These Condemned (1954), Contrary Pleasure (1954), Cry Hard, Cry Fast (1955), A Man of Affairs (1957), The Deceivers (1958), The Executioners (1958), Clemmie (1958), Please Write for Details (1959), The Crossroads (1959), Slam the Big Door (1960), The End of the Night (1960), A Key to the Suite (1962), A Flash of Green (1962), The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything (1963), I Could Go on Singing (1963), The House Guests (1965), No Deadly Drug (1968), Condominium (1977), Nothing Can Go Wrong (1981), One More Sunday (1984), Barrier Island (June 1986), A Friendship (November 1986).

Insofar as "being neglected over the long haul and categorized by critics as ephemeral," I could not care less. It has been my personal observation that those members of my peer group who get terribly earnest about their literary immortality are the ones least likely to achieve any. And, of course, any writer who pays attention to critics is an ass. I write because I enjoy the hell out of it, and if I couldn't ever sell another word, I would keep right on amusing myself with it.

NBM: You are known as a writer with a social conscience, concerned about environmental issues, corporate greed, economic abuses, immorality on a large scale. Do you consider yourself a social evangelist?

MacDonald: What a dreadful phrase that is: "social evangelist!" I would not invite one of those into my kitchen for a beer. Any intelligent person who is indifferent to the environmental issues, indifferent to the corporate greed which pried unearned billions out of NASA and the defense program, indifferent to a lethargic, self important bureaucracy which spends two dollars on itself out of every five appropriated for social programs, that person is not living in the world. He is not experiencing life. He is as dead upstairs as he soon will be in toto.

NBM: Are you interested in politics as an active participant?

MacDonald: I have supported a few -- a very few -- politicians I respect. But only with donations. I am not a group person. I like to be alone, work alone, so that both blame and praise are undiluted.

NBM: Writers' organizations are in the news lately -- The American Writers Congress and the PEN conference, for example -- largely due to their interest in national and international political matters. As a former president of MWA, do you have any observations on the role of a writers' group and the matters writers' organizations ought to address?

MacDonald: Historically, all autocratic governments oppress writers. The dictator does not want to be told he is wearing no clothes. A lot of very good work has come out of such oppressions. I suppose it is reasonable for organizations of writers to complain as loudly as possible about their fellow writers in the gulags, prisons, and asylums. Sometimes it seems to do some good. But I far prefer the sort of activity the Authors' Guild undertakes when they publish model contracts with publishers and recommend the abolishing of traditional unfair clauses therein. The Screenwriters' Guild has used the strike weapon successfully to pry loose a share of the income from sale of tapes.

NBM: Early in your career, you wrote science fiction. Why did you stop?

MacDonald: I will probably write some more science fiction some day. I will come upon an idea which cannot be expressed as well in another form. Science fiction is particularly useful in making social comment without being dull.

NBM: A turning point in your career was your introduction of Travis McGee, who has now been the protagonist of some twenty novels. Does the time come when, despite your best intentions, you find that you have exhausted a character's possibilities and you become bored with him?

MacDonald: Are you serious? How could I know if a time will come when I will become bored with McGee? I am not bored now.

NBM: You will be seventy in July. Have you contemplated retirement?

MacDonald: I haven't given it a thought. I'd hate to have to pack it in. It's too much fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment