Monday, August 26, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 26: April 15, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill, published in the Clinton Courier, when the MacDonalds were living in that university town in upstate New York. Some interesting tidbits of JDM's personal life at the time, including his failing eyesight, the life of a pulp writer, and being a concerned parent.


By the time this column is printed, we will have come back from Utica wearing glasses that do a more effective job of correcting our crummy vision than the old ones did.

So, in a sense, this is an apology for the innumerable times we have stalked right by friends and acquaintances without the suggestion of a nod.

Actually, you have all been pretty well fogged over for some months now.

Human nature being a stubborn and ridiculous thing, we began to worry a great deal when, about a year ago, the horizon began to creep toward us. We worried so hard that we didn't go to a doctor, fearing that it would be something serious and he would say, "You've got to stop using your eyes."

And we can't afford a stenographer to take down this deathless prose, even if we were able to dictate it.

But discomfort overcame fear, and we found that slightly thicker lenses would do the job. (The man said slightly thicker. Maybe he means like those at the ends of flashlights.)

Also, he made no mention of any bad effects that might result from our furtive occupation of sitting here at an electric typewriter, inflicting all sorts of horror on the newsstands of America.

Of course, it may be a pretty reckless thing for us to promise to recognize people and speak to them. We can't seem to remember names or faces well. A book said that the idea is to pick out some distinguishing feature on the person to be remembered and connect it up with his name. Thus, if a man is named Smith and has silver-colored hair, when you meet him, you mumble, "Silversmith" a half a dozen times, and you're set.

Note: This system will not work in Clinton where the last name happens to be Burns.

Anyway, while trying to apply the system, we once met a man with a small bit of lint on his cheek. It was at a party. From then on, at that party, we got his name right every time. But we've never been able to remember him since. If he'd had any sense, he'd have made things easier by leaving that lint right there from then on.

* * *

Professional Note:

This is the week we will remember mostly because of a letter that came from an editor in New York. He wanted us to write a story for him. But with certain conditions. It had already been made up. And it had to fit the enclosed photostat of a cover of the magazine, showing a gruesome action picture. And it had to be 15,000 words.

The things we do for the sake of "art"!

The story has been mailed. Haven't heard from him yet.

* * *

Fair Warning:

Spring is in the air and that certain sub-human species, the Daring Cowboy of the Highways, is with us again.

He has lately been much in evidence zooming over the crest of College Hill and heading out into the wild blue yonder.

Two of them roar by often enough at speeds well over fifty so that we have begun to know the cars. One of them drives a green crate four or five years old, and one of them drives a jalop.

Since this area is liberally bespattered with children, and the crown of the hill limits visibility, we consider those two citizens to be potential criminals.

So, here is a warning to those two spiritual refugees from California. We are going to try to clock them and catch the license numbers. From the license numbers we are going to find addresses. Then we are going to visit them, ask a few questions and print the answers in this column.

One of the questions is going to be -- "What in the world do you do that makes you so eager to either get to it -- or get away from it?"

* * *

See you next week.

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."