Thursday, May 14, 2009

Craig's List - the Interview

Part two of the McDonald posts.

Craig McDonald knows more than you do. Forget it, he does. In the forward to Craig’s first book, Art in the Blood, Ken Bruen says of McDonald, “I read him, mutter…the hell do I know?” His books drip with the details and insights about art, literature, film and history you’ll be passing off as your own at parties the rest of your life. But they are not bloodless scholarly tomes. Oh, no. He packages all that into crime novels so doggone entertaining you’ll finish without realizing you’ve been educated. His stories spin a wild tapestry of twentieth century history with, (what else?), a writer at the center of it all. But Hector Lassiter is far more than some pulp fiction Forrest Gump, bumping into Elvis here or JFK there, bumbling his way through popular culture and world events, he’s a rich fictional creation full of conviction and contradiction. Craig’s new book is Rogue Males.

You made a name for yourself in crime lit circles as a journalist and interrogator first. Which came first for you, the desire to write fiction or write about it?

Definitely to write fiction. I first tried to write a crime novel when I was nine. I wrote some short stories that verged on hardboiled crime fiction whose content concerned my third-grade teacher enough to warrant a parent-teacher conference. I actually wrote a couple of crime novels in the early 1990s, came close to getting an agent a few times with those, then got married, had children and set fiction writing aside for a few years.

About 2000, I was approached by the editor of the Australian crime fiction magazine Crime Factory to interview some American crime writers for the zine. I started with James Ellroy, and went on from there. I also began posting long-form Q&As with interview subjects on my own website, then later adapting those same online interviews for occasional newspaper articles. But my eye was always on writing novels and I was writing my own novels again while conducting all those interviews.

Does that third grade teacher still live in your fiction?

No, I’ve never used my teacher and probably never will…she’s just not going to fit comfortably into my fictional milieu.

Who would have influenced you at nine years old?

My grandfather had a basement full of paperback thrillers, crime novels and some deeper stuff, like Nelson Algren and Calder Willingham. He also had stacks of magazines: Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine…Argosy and the like. Those were packed with short stories by Ian Fleming and articles about Jack the Ripper and the Cleveland Torso Slayer, so I was reading all that exceptionally lurid stuff years ahead of when I probably should have. He also turned me onto the Bantam paperback reprints of the Doc Savage pulps. The first of those I read was The Land of Terror, probably the bloodiest book in the series, and one of the two in which the title character actually killed people, and pretty indiscriminately…I was about 7 or 8 when I read that one, and was hooked on the series, and pulp lit, like that.

The descriptions characters give to reading Hector's stories sound awfully similar to your account of reading The Land of Terror.

I hadn’t made the connection until you pointed it out, but The Land of Terror may well lie behind The Land of Dread and Fear, which is Hector’s then-most-recent novel that so many other characters comment upon throughout Head Games — a novel so dark and turbulent it leaves many around Hector unsettled… A novel too dark to ever become a movie, as Hector puts it. The kind of running theme through the Lassiter series in terms of other people’s reaction to Hector’s work is one of fascination and mild frustration. They find Hector’s fiction gripping and evocative and the characters very involving and well drawn, yet they feel Hector has abilities that recommend him for more literary undertakings…that his crime writing is somehow slumming.

As the series unfolds, and I think you get this very strongly in the third novel, Print the Legend which will be out early in 2010, we see Hector was in Paris in the 1920s and started down the path of literary fiction. Print the Legend is largely set in 1965, and as the 1960s are getting on, Hector is starting to come around to the notion that keeps being thrust in his face — that he should maybe try to write a very different kind of book.

Is that something you "wrestle" with? Hector seems more than a little contemptuous of the notion.

No, I was always going to be the writer I am. I firmly believe that and with the benefit of hindsight, I can look back and see how all the dots connect and I see no other path but the one I’m on.

Hector fronts occasional contempt for the notion, but it digs at him because he did set out down a different path early on, as did a few crime writers of his era. Cornell Woolrich’s first novel was not in genre and in fact drew favorable comparisons with Fitzgerald’s work. Writers of Hector’s era, these kind of man’s man writers like Hemingway, also struggled with the notion that something as intellectual as writing was a less than macho means of making a living. They all tended to disparage their own trade to varying degrees. Hemingway was the most extreme example of that tendency probably, with the sports fishing, the boxing, the big game hunting, et al. At the end of the day, Hem was a neurotic, probably bi-polar guy with a bum leg, bad eyes, chronic ill-health and a vast library of books.

Hector’s self-effacement can’t be taken at face value. Print the Legend runs him up against a mountain town full of literary scholars and academics and it forces Hector to a rather disarming reappraisal of his career.

So then, how far ahead, (or behind) have you got Hector defined? Will the series climax with Black Jack Pershing or Hector's conception?

Well, I conceived it as a seven-book series and wrote them all before we sold numbers three and four. I had my own sequence in mind, but my new editor at St. Martin’s acquired what I envisioned as the last two books in the series. That said, I’m working on a World War II take on Hector now, but that would definitely be the last I’d attempt with him. So, definitely, seven books by my plan; and just maybe eight…and then we’re done with him.

Not knowing in what sequence they’ll eventually appear, I can’t really tell you how the last book might play at this point. All I call tell you about what’s ahead is that after Print the Legend, we move to 1958 Nashville for a Hector-narrated tale that will return several key characters from Head Games. That one is coming from Minotaur, probably in fall of 2010 and is called Gnashville, Mon Amour. Beyond that, there’s one novel set in one week in Paris in 1924. That one leads into a novel set in 1925 Key West. After that, there’s a 1950 take on the Kefauver hearings and the Ohio mob. And then, maybe, Hector’s escapades in World War II. Getting those others out there will really depend on reader interest in the next two coming from Minotaur Books. In my mind, it’s really all one big novel.

Between the first two books, the tone shifted dramatically from the hard-charging pulpy tilt of HG to a more melancholy and meditative T&T. Can we expect that from the rest of the series?

You can expect ongoing tonal shifts from one novel to the next. I’m very much committed to not giving you the same ride two books in a row. I think a critical problem with too many series is a willingness on the part of the authors to coast, or to advance their characters’ arcs at a kind of glacial pace. Some series writers — and their readers, to be fair — are apparently willing to accept essentially the same book under a different title. For my part, I’m committed to thwarting expectations with succeeding installments in the Lassiter series. The next one is perhaps a bit closer in feel to Toros & Torsos — Megan Abbott calls the third one “epic” — but it’s still a very different kind of book and its mood and tone are very much its own. The fourth, Gnashville, returns Hector to the role of narrator, and its pace and feel are a bit closer to Head Games, but it’s in no way “Son of Head Games.”

Depending on the journey Hector’s undertaking in a particular installment, it may be dark, wistful or exhilarating coming into the final turn of each novel. Even the darkest of the Lassiter books have a running thread of black humor. In Print the Legend, Hector is 65; he’s reached the apex of his celebrity and he’s outlived friends and family. Yet he’s hungry and restless and the writer in him is stirring in new and unexpected ways.

There was a graphic adaptation of Head Games being discussed and that's a transition that sounds doable — it's harder to imagine T&T as a graphic work. Is that something you consider as you write?

The graphic novel of Head Games is still coming. I wrote the script for that sometime ago, and it’s in the pipeline somewhere. Although it’s a bigger book, I think I could adapt T&T a bit more easily than HG, oddly enough. One of the challenges with Head Games is that so much happens in Hector’s head, and the plot is advanced by newspaper clippings, magazine articles and by text-heavy elements of that sort. It’s kind of the Watchmen problem in that sense — story elements that are critical but firmly outside a strictly image-based medium. T&T is pretty conventional in its story form compared to HG…it unfolds through action and dialogue.

But no, I don’t think of the novels as anything but novels as I write them. I’m not considering how they might or might not adapt to graphic novel format, or to film. The one effect other formats has had on me in terms of writing or editing these novels stems from the unabridged audio recordings of the Lassiter series being made by Recorded Books. I got exactly the reader for Head Games that I wanted — Tom Stechschulte. He also reads No Country for Old Men and The Road, as well as providing the narration for the Watchmen Motion Comic. Now, when I write or edit Hector, I hear Tom’s version of his voice. T&T will be released on audio later this year.

Which interests you more with this series, creating a three dimensional fictional character or telling the story of the twentieth century?

There’s definitely an intertwining of 20th-Century “under-history” and Hector Lassiter’s biography that fires this series. He was born on January 1, 1900 and came in with the century. So far as the historical stuff goes, I’m essentially trying to depict how pop culture and art might drive what we take for history. But not all of the books are built around historical events. The one set in Paris in the 1920s, in particular, has no historical roots, but it is dense with historical figures.

All that “real” stuff aside, my primary concern is with Hector and exploring him fully as a character. If I succeed in my job, when it’s all there for you, you’ll have a complex, multifaceted character who I’d hope seems strangely missing from the actual history books and biographies pertaining to the real events and people who populate this series. For me, always — always — the focus is on Hector as a man and a writer.

Hector recoils at the suggestion that he writes mysteries, but T&T contained a lot of classic mystery elements.

Yeah, it’s a sore point with Hector. He much prefers “crime writer.” But then think of the kinds of “mysteries” his stuff was up against in various phases of his career…a lot of stuff in the 1930s-70s was insultingly puerile and all of it, high and low, was called “mystery” writing.

As to Toros & Torsos, yes, it does contain some mystery elements, some of it for storytelling reasons, and some of it getting back to some of the post-modern undertow that runs through the series.

For my part, I see no reason a mystery or crime novel can’t also work as a piece of literature. A few reviewers have actually treated Toros & Torsos as a literary work; others, including George Pelecanos, called it “genre bending.” Print the Legend, I think — and early readers are so far confirming this — actually leans more in the direction of a literary thriller, and pushes the boundaries of genre a good bit farther than T&T did. But in the end, and I say this as a former book reviewer, tags and genre designations are useful for literary page editors and for bookstores and libraries in terms of where to shelve a book, and that’s about it.

So what about the shelving situation? Does it please or irritate you where and in what company you find your stuff kept/marketed/reviewed?

Nah, it is what it is. In most bookstores, I’m in the mystery section. The independent store here in town has me shelved in fiction, alongside Cormac McCarthy. I did have the recent experience of walking into a Barnes & Noble and finding Head Games in the mystery section, and Toros in the fiction section, in the same bookstore. Really, I’m thrilled to have the books stocked, period. And given the speed with which newspapers are dying, it’s just really terrific to be reviewed.
What about life after Hector?

As I said, the graphic novel is in the pipeline. Head Games was just published in Russia. It will be out this fall in France and soon, Japan. Then I have some non-Hector novels. I also have other projects in reserve including a more contemporary series I wrote a few years back that has some character overlap with Hector’s world… That guy’s name-checked in the next Hector. We’ll see how the world turns.

This May brings Rogue Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life from Bleak House Books. It’s my second interview collection and Bleak House’s first foray into nonfiction. It effectively marks the end of my nonfiction work. It’s a much scrappier interview collection than the first, Art in the Blood. This book has one of James Crumley’s last interviews…Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Andrew Vachss, Craig Holden, Pete Dexter, Daniel Woodrell and my favorite living songwriter, Tom Russell, among others.

The heart of the book is a longish narrative about my trip to Arizona to interview James Sallis and Ken Bruen. I was about halfway through writing Head Games, put it aside for a few weeks, reread all of Sallis’ books, all of Ken’s, then flew to the desert to plumb their minds on the craft of crime writing. I came back, wrote up the piece, then finished Head Games. For me, at least, Head Games, and the Sallis/Bruen essay are pretty much of a piece.

So, aside from five as yet unpublished Hector books, you've got how many completed novels sitting around waiting?

I haven’t counted and I think the exercise of doing that would be both depressing and frightening. But there are some standalones, new and older…and pretty much another series. Best to leave it at that.

Just seems like a hell of a work ethic. Obviously, you didn't write one then wait for someone to pick it up... let it be rejected over and over...

I believe it’s like so many other things in this life — overcoming the law of averages. So I treat it as a numbers game and a war of attrition. Short stories or novels, you finish one, best you can, and start another. Give it to your agent and cross your fingers. Keep your head down and write.


Gordon Harries said...

Jed: as I believe I said to you, back when you punted it my way...

this is really good, really strong.

working my way though Torsos and Toros at the moment.

David Cranmer said...

Superb post. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I wish I had some questions to ask Craig, but you pretty much covered it all here, Jed. Thorough as hell and really fun to see Craig on the receiving end of the questions after reading Rogue Males.

Gordon Harries said...

Keith: Keep an eye on NSS, my freind...

and keep on keeping on with the Britpop!

Anonymous said...

Jed, Outstanding interview, I agree it was great to see Craig on the other end after reading both Art & Rogue. Alongside of Ken Bruen& Daniel Woodrell, I think Craig is at the top of todays fiction writers. Great piece here.