With Art in the Blood Craig McDonald wrote one of the indispensable non-fiction books of the the mystery/crime fiction genre. How does one follow that up? First, by starting what is shaping up to be, one of the great series of all time with Head Games, then a couple of years later giving us this companion piece.
Rogue Males is as equally indispensable as Art in the Blood and manages to surpass it in many ways. The final section The Desert Dialogues: Conversations with James Sallis and Ken Bruen offers up staggering profiles and is worth the price of admission alone.
The subjects are more expansive and the conversations are more in depth. Craig McDonald has written another book that belongs on every readers shelf.
Awhile back I conducted a fairly lengthy interview with Craig McDonald that covers a broad range of subjects that will appear in the next issue of Spinetingler. What better way to celebrate a book of interviews then an interview. Presented below are selections from the upcoming interview.
Brian Lindenmuth: Given his influence on Lassiter what went through your mind when you heard that Jim Crumley died?
Craig McDonald: I was flattened. He was a tremendous influence and he very kindly blurbed Head Games. My interview with him – one of his last – leads Rogue Males, my second interview collection that Bleak House will publish in May. It makes the release of the book pretty poignant for me.I’d promised him a finished copy.
Brian Lindenmuth: In your interview with Dan Brown (collected in Art in the Blood) you asked him the following question: “You’ve taken on some fairly powerful entities in your books – the Catholic Church… the masons…various alleged secret societies and government agencies. Are you starting to have any fears for your own safety?” Your own work deals with secret societies; In Head Games you’ve taken on the Bush family and Skull Bones and in Toros & Torsos a secret cabal of Surrealists.
What is the fascination with secret societies and have you felt any pressures for your portrayal of infamous secret societies.
Craig McDonald: It’s tough not to be enthralled by secretive groups, particularly when they’re populated by movers-and-shakers ala Skull & Bones. For a novelist, the beauty of these groups is all that secrecy creates voids that can translate into plot moves. As to any repercussions, so far, all is well (so far as I know). The surrealist circle I write about in T&T has passed from the earth. Skull & Bones is a very different matter, but I was fairly playful in my handling of that group, particularly in comparison to some recent nonfiction books that have tackled Skull & Bones. Book three examines the FBI’s war on writers under J. Edgar Hoover’s direction, so I’m not exactly shying away from more of the same.
Brian Lindenmuth: Let’s talk Bud Fiske, you said, “I figure when Bud grew up, he ended up being a little like William Burroughs.” — That’s an interesting destination for a character; will we see Bud in another novel Lassiter or otherwise?
Craig McDonald: One of the great surprises for me has been the strong attachment some have formed for Bud. There’s a certain type of reader I’m finding who actually prefer Bud to Hector in Head Games and keep asking for a Bud novel (not going to happen). That said, yes, Bud will be cropping up again, and in fact he has a fairly major role in Gnashville.
Brian Lindenmuth: One of the themes of Head Games was myth, reality and how the two interact. Today we seem to expect our heroes and public figures to have feet of clay. Does this expectation of the human limit our capacity for myth and legend? If so how does it affect our stories, the ones we read and tell?
Craig McDonald: I’d submit that many of the classical heroes were pretty gray characters in many ways. Some of them did some pretty appalling things or had serious character defects. The difference between then and now, I think, is that many characters we get in contemporary fiction are almost stubbornly unlikable. I find myself dropping a lot of books lately because the characters have no redeeming qualities and so, for me, no reader appeal. If you have talent, you can have it both ways – James Ellroy excels at writing gripping bad-asses who have very dark sides yet they remain compelling and even a bit winning. Despite their tremendous flaws, they are ingratiating. It’s a talent for characterization more contemporary crime fiction novelists need to cultivate. As to the other part of your question regarding myth and legend, I think that many current writers also trump story for character or atmosphere, or even attitude, and those qualities – sans strong story – do not a saga make.
Brian Lindenmuth: For the historical figures you write about are you interested more in the myth or the man? For Lassiter — which are you writing, the myth or the reality?
Craig McDonald: That question goes to the heart of the Lassiter series as we think we’re receiving it. Hector is known as “the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives” and the tension between those two paths is the fulcrum for all seven books. So I’m going to dodge some of that question for now. As to the historical figures, I try to do with them what I try to do with historical events and eras in the Lassiter novels. I’m not really trying to put across a historically accurate snapshot of a time or place, so much as to evoke a sense of what I think to be our collective impression of 1935 Key West, or 1924 Paris, or in the case of Head Games, of the late 1950s. I think we all get the past through similar still images, old films and paraphernalia, so I want you to look at my Hemingway and say, “Yeah, that’s how Hem would have been,” or, “Yeah, that’s Tijuana in 1957.” It’s not about accurate depiction of person or place, but rather accurate depiction of shared sense of person and place.
Brian Lindenmuth: What will it take to shake the genre up? Does it need shaking up?
Craig McDonald: I think what we’re really lacking is more writers willing to swing for the fences. We need more big stories. The authors we grew up reading didn’t have to compete with near uninterrupted reruns of CSI and Law & Order, etc. Whatever you might think of the strain those shows put on reality and procedure, they tell slick, well-crafted crime stories that render a lot of crime novels as they are written now, redundant. You can’t build a writing career on the small case, anymore. I think the key to staying relevant as a genre writer now is to be found in mounting the kinds of bigger stories television and film can’t afford to produce.
Brian Lindenmuth: Mystery/crime fiction, much more so then any other genre, is far more obsessed/enamored with its pulp fiction roots. To me this is ultimately a longing look backwards at days gone past.
Craig McDonald: I just wrote a column touching on some of this for Crimespree Magazine. I think there’s a value and necessity in knowing your own roots. The writer I probably feel the greatest kinship with right now is Megan Abbott. We both revere James Ellroy and we’re both writing similar eras and characters. We were talking about mulling contemporary settings, and we simultaneously began ruing the cell phone.ruing the connectivity we all have with one another now and the fact that so much contemporary suspense writing – be it in books or on film – all spins on the gadgets. You’d have to rewrite both of the most recent Bond films if you took away the cell phones as plot elements. I blame some of this on Bin Laden, too. In my first interview book, I kept hearing time and again from authors they couldn’t really write contemporary stuff in good conscience in the wake of 9-11 because it just dwarfed their sense of genre fiction. I’m not sure many of us have come out of that effect, even eight years later. Many of those writers drifted into historical fiction. It’s kind of why I’m writing the books I’m currently writing.
Brian Lindenmuth: Is the genre’s current obsession with pulp fiction a healthy one?
Craig McDonald: I think it’s fine if you’re taking the best of the pulp tradition and updating or spinning it in some fresh way. I think where it’s perhaps been unhealthy has been the effect the obsession has had on some European writers who are writing in cultures and settings outside that American, post-war pulp tradition, yet trying to graft that sensibility on to their works. It’s produced some curious and not particularly effective hybrids, I think.
Brian Lindenmuth: I find that I have a very personal and gut level response to Lassiter; he reminds me of my grandfather. Looking at my own personal response and then one of the epigraphs from Head Games, “Rakish in his eye patch. Pundit went sane…A reminder: men were men then.” was Lassiter meant, in some way, to be a tribute to that generation of men?
Craig McDonald: Absolutely. I dedicated the novel to the memory of my grandfather, Bill Sipe, who gave me Doc Savage paperbacks and crime novels to read.turned me on to Ian Fleming. He was a retired structural steel worker who took on that career during the Depression. Before that, he kind of rambled around.was an extra in old Westerns, supposedly with Tom Mix, and the like. He wore sports jackets, regardless of the weather, and smoked Pall Malls and carried a Zippo. He was a salty talker. Lassiter is intended to celebrate that generation of men born between 1900-1910.
Brian Lindenmuth: You once said “But Hector is a 20th-century man, and a veteran, with all that implies.” — Over the last few decades the societal roles of men have been undergoing a change. Is the character a response to this change?
Craig McDonald: Again, yeah, that’s what I’m aiming for with Hector. Everything repeats itself. There was a time I thought I’d have a very different life from that of my grandfather or his sons – no catastrophic economic crises, nothing like that back-shooting shock of Pearl Harbor.no long, ongoing wars. Well, we’re kind of living our own version of those bloody 20th Century landmarks, but we’re relying on a much different flavor of man to carry us through these hard times. A part of me wishes some of those old warhorses and tough guys were still around to see us through. I don’t put much trust in my own generation’s effectiveness in certain areas of endeavor.
Brian Lindenmuth: Is the masculine image of Lassiter an anachronistic one?
Craig McDonald: Well, some of Head Games and Toros & Torsos’ readers would tell you it is. Guys tend to love him, but he isn’t to every woman’s taste. My agent says Hector appeals to “the kind of women who love men who love women.” I think that’s true. The majority of women who write about him or write me really love the guy, but there are some women here and there who find him too strong a cup of coffee. But while I use him as a kind of prism through which to view our times, I am writing him in his own historical context, and we’re going to see him through the 1920s and well into the 1960s and some of those changing roles of men and women make themselves felt as the series moves closer to our times. In Print the Legend, Hector is 65, and he’s running up against a very different type of woman than he was encountering in 1935 Key West. Hannah Paulson in Print the Legend is a world away from the women he runs up against in Head Games or Toros.
Brian Lindenmuth: If you were in a bar full of cozy writers and things got ugly how many cozy writers would it take to bring you down?
Craig McDonald: Sadly enough, one cozy writer could take me down if that writer had a cat in tow. I am toxically, deathly allergic to cats. One minute in a room with a feline and I’m totaled.
Brian Lindenmuth: What would you have liked to see but were born too late for?
Craig McDonald: VE Day in Times Square.I’d really like to know who Jack the Ripper was.and the Cleveland Headhunter. And what the hell really did happen to fellow Ohioan Ambrose Bierce?