Friday, February 12, 2010

The Man Behind the Legend - Part II

Welcome back everyone. And welcome back to Craig, too. I am so excited to be back again with the remainder of my interview with PRINT THE LEGEND author Craig McDonald. I had such a great time with this interview and Craig was exceptionally tolerant of all my questions. But, I know you're more interested in getting back to what Craig had to say, as am I, so let's jump right back in.
Q. Ernest Hemingway’s death and the subsequent actions of his wife, friends, the scholars, this is the focus of book three, PRINT THE LEGEND. Can you talk a little about the conspiracies that we see in this novel (without giving too much away of course)? You bring out elements of the relationship of Hemingway to the FBI, and thus to Hector. And while all three books deal with conspiracies, PRINT THE LEGEND really gripped me. Made me want to run to Google about every six pages.

Craig: Thanks very much, Jen— I’m thrilled to hear that. The book that started much of the plot in PRINT rolling in my head was Herbert Mitgang’s DANGEROUS DOSSIERS that details J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of many writers and painters including such menacing figures as Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. Part of the tragedy of Hem’s last days is that he was regarded as paranoid and delusional based on his claims the FBI was trailing him, but they in fact were: Agents followed him right into the Mayo Clinic. We have their reports to Hoover regarding the fact that electroshock therapy was being considered for Hemingway. Hoover was also quite upset that there was a period of time in which Hemingway had direct access to President Roosevelt via Hem’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn.

The other ongoing plot thread in PRINT relates to Hemingway’s posthumous papers/works. All of the books printed after Hemingway’s death were meddled with, some to great extent, by Hem’s fourth wife, Mary, and by subsequent editors. Mary also burned some materials in Cuba…allegedly letters and magazines, but who’s to say for certain?
Q. Hemingway was not as prominent in HEAD GAMES as he was in TOROS AND TORSOS and now in PRINT THE LEGEND. From several references in PRINT THE LEGEND, I’m assuming we’ll see more of Hector’s friendship with Papa in the future. Is that a safe assumption?
Craig: There will be a brief Hemingway cameo in number four, ROLL THE CREDITS…something that happens in occupied Paris. Apart from that, Hem has a major roll in the novel I wrote set in 1920s Paris. There he really is Hector’s sidekick through the duration of the novel. But that’s about it for Hemingway.
Q. I found myself looking up people and events from the Lassiter books to see how they blended into the history books. A prime example being Orson Welles’ flight from the U.S. in 1947. How have you gone about your research into these areas? Are these tidbits you’ve collected over the years or did you sit down with the express purpose of finding this information for a book concept? You’ve located a lot of “pockets” of time that aren’t necessarily recorded in detail in the history books and made use of them in your plots. And where do you draw your line at fact and fiction, or do you feel like it’s already drawn for you?
Craig: A lot of it is frankly serendipity and having a lint-trap mind for odd historical details picked up over years of reading. The bit about Orson fleeing the U.S. was stuff I picked up from reading far too many accounts of the Black Dahlia murder. Really, all that TOROS stuff was just weaving together things from different sources regarding the surrealists whom I’ve always regarded as a very twisted bunch.

In the grander sense, I hope the lines between fact and fiction don’t show much. I try to have the real people in the right places in time based on what we know of their movements. I try to have them talk “in character.” But I’ll trump history for story every time because it is, in the end, a novel.

I was a kid who read a lot of stuff about classic true crimes, read it far earlier than I should have, and yet you start to play games in your own head about how things marry up. My first full crime novel/manuscript, written in the late 1980s/very early 1990s, one I’d love to get out someday, is written around the Cleveland Torso murders. It was actually written before so many others took their own swings at those Cleveland crimes. That first novel kind of set the template and style for the eventual Lassiter novels, though it remains, for now, in a kind of limbo. And again, to illustrate my stubbornness, the character of the Irish cop, James Hanrahan in PRINT THE LEGEND, actually is one of the key characters from that first novel. Hanrahan, by the way, will be back in a much larger role in ROLL THE CREDITS.
Q. Do you hear many of those “detail” complaints about any of the books, especially seeing as you’re dealing with a lot more historical information? You know…those, “that gun doesn’t have [fill in the blank]” or “it wasn’t raining on that [enter date] in [enter location].”
Craig: To tell the truth, I purposely built a couple of anachronisms into HEAD GAMES to undermine the sense of accurate history — something to be paid off later in the series — but those “gaffes” went right by readers, nearly as I can tell. But yeah, I had a couple of small glitches in TOROS. One involved Styrofoam…the other a vehicle I had on the road a couple years too early. We fixed it for the French translation. You do your best to check these things. I’ve got some pretty bizarre emails between my agent and me regarding the availability of a certain kind of oysters in a certain place and time. As your agent is now really your front-line editor, mine is always looking for these problems, too.

Those confessions aside, my goal is to give a sense of shared memory of time and place rather than an accurate but embalmed time capsule sense of an era. I’ve read too many historical crime novels that read like a 1936 Sears & Roebuck catalogue: all these product and brand names…long descriptive passages about vintage kitchen utilities. In TOROS, I knowingly put that brick wall around Hemingway’s Key West house a year or two before it was really built just because I wanted that wall there in 1935. At that point, historically, Hem’s place was actually bound by a wire fence.
Q. The age-old debate comes through in Hector’s story through his friendship with Hemingway. Hector the “genre” writer and Hemingway the “literary” writer. And it is especially pronounced in PRINT THE LEGEND with all the scholars present. But there are also some interesting viewpoints on that debate in this book. For example, when Patricia introduces herself to Hector and says, “ ‘My pupil made a compelling case for you as one of the pioneers of postmodern fiction, despite your classification as a genre writer by most critics.’” This has always been an interesting distinction to me because as I look at history’s “literary” writers, if they were writing today, many would fall into genre categories. Shakespeare, Poe, Dickens, not to mention Arthurian literature would certainly be in the crime fiction realm. Are there crime fiction writers today that you think we’ll look back on and find that they’ve influenced writing as a whole? How do you feel about the legitimacy of the debate?
Craig: This past week, in fact, brought the usual dust up about that fissure on the web…a debate about putting a moratorium on the term “transcending the genre” and so forth. Having this year sampled something like 300 crime and mystery novels, speaking as a former genre critic, interviewer and current genre writer, I’d submit we desperately need to push boundaries and “transcend genre” more than most authors in genre currently seem impelled to do or many publishers are willing to buy. Many acquiring editors won’t buy things that fall between or meld genres. A lot of current crime and mystery fiction, for me, is frankly stultifying as written. There are astute people in publishing houses in New York who’ll say the same thing to you, quietly. Staying in the lines is choking genre fiction.

I’m trying to think of anyone writing today who I think might have that kind of reach or influence you’re pointing to…and I’m coming up dry. Cormac McCarthy runs as a literary writer, but he has stormed across a couple of genres with his two most recent novels, and he certainly wrote a western with BLOOD MERIDIAN. This past year, I’ve read a lot of novels using obvious Anton Chigurh knock-offs — these kinds of existentialist/metaphysical sociopaths. Coming at your question from the opposite direction in time, as you did with Poe and Dickens and so forth, I’d say Hemingway was a genre writer in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT…certainly in “The Killers” and seven or eight other short stories. Same can be said of Faulkner. I’d say Flannery O’Connor was our first great female noir novelist and short story writer. For my money, THE GREAT GATSBY qualifies as crime fiction. Algren and Wallant wrote novels I think you could say are cusping crime fiction. I could go on in that sense… Maybe with hindsight we’ll see a few of today’s genre writers having wielded real influence, but I can’t point to them just yet.
Q. Kind of branching from that question, what do you think Hector Lassiter’s views on today’s crime fiction would be? Are there changes in the genre that would send him off the deep end? Are there new elements of the genre today that he’d be thrilled to see emerging?
Craig: In a short story that first introduced Hector called “The Last Interview,” I have Hector riffing on some contemporaries and some emerging trends that had him aghast (cat mysteries). Without getting too far into spoiler territory, in PRINT we begin to get hints that Hector actually kind of abandoned genre in favor of some other kind of writing as the middle 1960s encroached. That Paris novel I’ve alluded to a few times actually makes it clear that Hector was there in the City of Lights in the 1920s to establish himself as a literary writer — an ambition he never quite shook.

As to how Hector would regard crime fiction today, he’d probably share a lot of my own tastes in contemporary fiction, focusing most heavily on James Sallis and Daniel Woodrell. He’d probably have higher regard for more writers working in genre now than in his own time. Hector always chafes when someone calls him a mystery writer because of what the term “mystery novel” embodied in his day—plot-driven puzzles low on polished prose and stingy on character development. I think, on balance, more of today’s writers are swinging for the far fences than maybe did in the previous generations of crime genre writers.
Q. You mentioned that you’ve read quite a bit of crime fiction this year, and you’ve also mentioned that you make an effort to grab the newest Megan Abbott, the newest Michael Koryta. Who else is on the list for you? With all the reading this year, any new names that you feel will make an impression on the genre?
Craig: I’ll read anything new by Sallis, Woodrell… Ellroy when he writes them — it was a long time between novels this ’round. I try to stay current with Mosley and Pelecanos. I read both of the new Connelly’s and THE SCARECROW certainly resonated for me on countless levels as a journalist. Other novels that have caught my eye this year include one by an Ohio author writing as “Kenneth Abel” called DOWN IN THE FLOOD. I was impressed by Jedediah Berry’s debut, THE MANUAL OF DETECTION. Tom Piccirilli’s SHADOW SEASON was excellent and did some very interesting things related to its narrator’s blindness. I actually read Ellroy’s BLOOD’S A ROVER twice…once to read it and once to prep to interview him. It is, in most ways, monumental, I think.

But in all of the year’s reading, what I found, most frustratingly, were a lot of novels that went along great for two-thirds’ length or more, then just made a tonal shift in the final turn that was almost whip-lash inducing. I’m not sure why so many books seemed to do that, but it was a definite running motif in my year’s reading, and I was reading all over the place, so it wasn’t just a matter of my own tastes producing this result.
Q. In PRINT THE LEGEND we find out that Hector is writing a book that may be bordering on the autobiographical. He’s created a working title…TOROS AND TORSOS. And he says about this work in progress, “I have my own long game to think about. Maybe I’ll let that sucker sit for awhile. Arrange to have it published thirty or forty years down the road, and maybe under some other byline…Maybe something Celtic sounding.” Well, hmmm. This leads me to the question – how much of you is in Hector?
Craig: Some of that is postmodern gamesmanship…having some meta fun. Another part of it is I’m increasingly underscoring the fact that these novels, whether written in first- or third-person, are really Hector’s own books…works he’s put forth for highly idiosyncratic agendas or personal reasons. He is the man “who writes what he lives and lives what he writes.”

To the other half of your question, in HEAD GAMES, Hector was frankly more of a character for me. I was thinking of James Crumley a lot while writing that book. By the time I was halfway through writing number two, TOROS, the distances between Hector and me had closed pretty alarmingly, as I began to see in retrospect. Fact is, I think Hector kind of hijacked my head in some ways and he’s yet to give it completely back. Between the eight novels, I’ve written well over half-a-million words about the guy, and having done that over a period of just a few months, something had to give and I guess it was maybe my own persona to some mild extent.
Q. O.k., I’ll quickly apologize for so many questions because I’m not done yet! I’ve directed most of my questions to you about the series as a whole, so is there anything you’d like to add specifically about PRINT THE LEGEND before I wrap this up with my last question?
Craig: Honestly, I think you’ve covered it all and thank you so much for this — it’s been a really rewarding exchange and you are one very close reader.

What would I add? Just that I’ve tried to make each novel very different from the one before because I rue series where the books become indistinguishable from one another. In the case of PRINT THE LEGEND, I see it as very much a shared book…as much belonging to the character of Hannah Paulson, the young, pregnant and aspiring fiction writer whom Hector comes to mentor to some extent, as the novel belongs to Hector himself.

And touching again on the unusual use of time in these novels, the good news is you can actually jump on board with any book in the series, really…there isn’t a pressing need to read them in publication sequence.
Q. Last question (as Craig wonders why in the world he agreed to this interview) – One True Sentence: “Hector Lassiter…”
Craig: No wondering on my part: thank you, Jen — this was, sincerely, a blast.

Okay, One True Sentence. Hector Lassiter would have relished the chance to contribute a six-word memoir: “Life is what happens between novels.”
Yep, you all know I have my goofy grin right now. Don't ya just love it? I love it! No money changed hands for that answer either! Thanks so much to Craig for all his time and wonderful responses. It's been a sheer joy learning more about him, the Hector Lassister series, and specifically PRINT THE LEGEND. And of course PRINT THE LEGEND comes out this Tuesday from St. Martin's Minotaur. Craig's had numerous posts at his blog regarding some of the conspiracies, characters, interviews, etc. that play parts in PRINT THE LEGEND. So you can mosey around over there and find out some additional fascinating facts.

Today is the last day you can enter to win my ARC copy of the book. So if you haven't done that already, jump on over and get your entry in. I will announce the winner tomorrow.

And of course, if you have some additional questions - if any of these questions sparked something for you, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Thanks to everyone for stopping by. I strongly urge you to put this series on your must read list. It really is one I highly recommend. For those who have the chance to get out to see Craig when he's on his book tour for PRINT THE LEGEND, there is a limited edition short story, "Colt," you will be able to buy from some of the independent book stores he's visiting. You'll want to get your paws on one of those. Here's Craig's tour schedule for that. And now I'll be waiting patiently for the arrival of ROLL THE CREDITS.

Thanks everyone! Happy reading!


Naomi Johnson February 12, 2010 at 7:57 AM  

Ah, I can't believe this is over. Good questions, Jen, and what an interesting man he is. Now I'm really on pins and needles for his signing here.

le0pard13 February 12, 2010 at 12:03 PM  

Great interview, Jen, of a very interesting and talented author. Thanks for this.

Pop Culture Nerd February 13, 2010 at 1:44 PM  

Not only is he interesting, he seems super smart and nice. Well done, Jen.

Since I'm not like you cool kids who have read PRINT, I'm crossing my fingers for the drawing...

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses February 15, 2010 at 8:41 AM  

Jen - What a terrific interview!!! Thank you (as I add the name Craig McDonald to my list of authors I now need to read . . . .)


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