Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Man Behind the "Legend" - Part I

As I mentioned earlier this week, I am humbled to have had the opportunity to chat with Craig McDonald and learn a bit more about him and his writing. Hopefully by now you are aware that he is the author of two Hector Lassiter novels, HEAD GAMES and TOROS & TORSOS, with a third, PRINT THE LEGEND, to be released on Tuesday. He also authored two collections of interviews, ART IN THE BLOOD and ROGUE MALES. He is an award-winning journalist, a husband and father, and simply an all-around great guy.

Of course in my blog interviews I have the benefit of being the one who comes up with the questions, so I get to ask about what interests me, but I hope you also find this interview as utterly fascinating as I did. As is often the case, I started asking and just kept going. So, I'm going to divide the interview into two days.

So without a bunch of extra chatter from me, here is day one of my conversation with Craig McDonald:

Q. I’d like to start out with a question about Craig. You’ve published two books of interviews, and PRINT THE LEGEND makes your third crime fiction novel. And prior to that, you were a journalist. What transpired in the life of Craig McDonald to bring you to this point in your career? Why writing? Why crime fiction?

Craig: My goal, very early, was to make a living as a writer. Journalism was partly a first-step toward realizing that aim and a way of gaining discipline, potential source material and developing a voice. I actually tried to write a mystery novel at about the age of eight or nine. The character who centered that early work of fiction I name-dropped into PRINT THE LEGEND (very near the end). I don’t let go of things easily in that way.

As to why crime fiction — it’s what I was raised on. My granddad had a basement full of crime novels he accumulated from this place called Murph’s Bar on the main drag of my hometown. It ran a kind of lending/trading library of pulp-lit stuff, lots of Gold Medal paperback originals and the like. I pretty much skipped the Hardy Boys and went straight to Lester Dent/Kenneth Robeson…on into Ian Fleming and Richard S. Prather.
Q. Aha! A man with a life-long calling. So, you've prepared to get to this level in the game. Nowadays, how do you prefer to write? Do you have a certain time of day that you like to write? Do you set word goals for yourself? Is it mandatory that you write at least something every day? Do you outline? I have to tell you that I love this question as cliché as it is. I have yet to hear an author on either side of the fence not say, “I don’t know how they do it” when they reference writers who write opposite of what they do.
Craig: Preferably early morning, back in the day. Now, it’s just whenever I can fit it in. I don’t have any real routines, and write on the computer, or longhand on a legal pad…more of the latter, lately. I revise as I key it in. I definitely don’t outline, and, yeah, I don’t understand how those who do outline ever write the book. To me, outlined books usually read as outlined books.

I usually start a novel with a beginning and an end in mind. I have a first and last sentence; it’s improvisation in between. James Sallis describes his own process as being a little like throwing yourself off a cliff knowing you can grab enough bracken and limbs on the way down to break your fall. As writing metaphors go, that works well for me. As to daily output, I shoot for 2-3K words, though I’ve done as many as 10-15,000 in a day.
Q. Switching gears here from the written word to the spoken, I was very intrigued to read your interview with Tom Stechschulte and the corresponding blog post. You said that it’s through his voice that you experience your books as the audience, instead of as the creator. This is so different from what I hear most of the time from authors. I typically hear, “I can’t listen to the audio book because it’s so different from what I hear in my head when I write.” What do you think is the reason you’re able to listen and experience as a member of the audience?

Craig: I think film adaptation I’d have a tough time settling into. There’s a story about some author, I forget which one, but I know he wrote a Western. He said he fell out of the film in the first shot because the hero rode in on his horse from the wrong side of the screen. I think because I selected Tom as my audio book narrator, and because he was close to the voice I heard in my head, I can just go with it. Really, by the time a novel is in finished form, I may have read it in total at least 50 times; in parts, maybe a hundred times. I’m always rereading as I key in, so every work is always being revised, all along the way. When I settle in with Tom’s narration, I really forget where it’s all going and just take it in like an old-time radio play. And now, when I edit Hector, his voice sounds just like Tom’s in my head.
Q. You also mentioned that you learn things about your style, about your dialogue that you notice through Tom’s audio book performances. Many authors will tell me that they read out loud to themselves as they write. What different kinds of things are you picking up from the audio books that you wouldn’t pick up from your own readings to yourself as you write?
Craig: I’m actually one of those authors who revises aloud. I know Walter Mosley does that. Ken Bruen, too. In the early days, I’d even read into a tape recorder and listen in the car as I drove to-and-from work: it is a great way to check dialogue for “sound.” Listening to Tom read my stuff, I think I key in on how characters’ are distinguished through my dialogue — helped no end by Tom’s acting, of course — and I learn to further sharpen characters’ voices in that way.
Q. Tom does an exemplary job with the Lassiter books. I’ve listened to his readings of both HEAD GAMES and TOROS AND TORSOS. Then I listened to James Lee Burke’s RAIN GODS, which Tom also read. I spent the first two chapters trying to re-orient myself so that I wasn’t thinking Hector Lassiter was talking. Do you hear your own voice or do you hear Tom’s voice when you write?
Craig: That’s strange: Tonight I’m about a third into reading RAIN GODS. Now that you mention it, I never hear my own voice when I write, though I didn’t consciously realize that until you made me think about it. I really write the movie I’m watching in my head. I hear distinct voices for all the characters. Before Tom was narrating the novels, Hector actually sounded like singer/songwriter Tom Russell’s speaking voice in my head. Now it’s all Tom Stechschulte. Bud Fiske, Hector’s sometimes sidekick, also sounds like Tom’s Bud, now.
Q. We have discussed before that I was a big fan of Mark Hammer’s before he passed away, and I am also a huge fan of George Guidall. How about you? Other audio book readers you’ve really been affected by?

Craig: I like Guidall quite a bit. Richard Poe is great. I enjoyed the late-Frank Muller’s readings very much. David Rintoul did my favorite narrations of the James Bond books. What I tend to notice even more are badly cast voices. There were some unabridged recordings of Hemingway’s novels that were cast so badly it smacked of sabotage. For my money, the best readings of Hemingway’s works are those by Alexander Scourby and Stacy Keach.
Q. O.k., let's get back on track here. Please pardon my drift there. Your “series” with Hector Lassiter doesn’t follow a traditional chronological order. Instead the events from each novel intertwine with each other. It’s kind of like taking the concept of the epic novel and blending it with the serial novel. What made you decide to use this approach? What are the greatest benefits and what are the greatest drawbacks or challenges?
Craig: For better or worse, events in our own lives are never discrete from one another: it’s all like a kind of oil spill. I wanted to capture some of that in a series format which is something I don’t think has ever been done before. For me, it’s all one big book. This way of using time also allows me to recontextualize things and kind of never shut off Hector’s evolution as a character. In the fourth novel, ROLL THE CREDITS, we’re going to see a twenty-something Hector in flashback. I have an entire novel written, set in one week in Paris, in which Hector is 24. If we get that far into the series, the later books will tend to give you a younger Hector than the first four did.

I think the only way to pull this concept off is to do the crazy (or audacious) thing I did: Draft all eight novels, then revise them tightly as a block. Then cross your fingers and hope nothing falls apart in the process of preparing/polishing the books with an editor.
Q. You have completed the Hector Lassiter series, correct? And PRINT THE LEGEND was, in your plan, to be the penultimate book. Your publisher, however, wanted to move the book to the third publication. Did you have to make any changes for this? Or how has it (if at all) changed your concept for the entire Hector Lassiter arc?
Craig: All the books are written. And, yes, my editor at Minotaur, John Schoenfelder (since moved on to Little, Brown), read them all and picked what I regarded as the last two books to relaunch the series at Minotaur. The strange thing was, the opening pages of PRINT THE LEGEND come right off the end of TOROS & TORSOS. So, in terms of the master plan, nothing was disrupted. It even looks planned. We’ve since made a change in publication schedules, and what I regarded as the last novel, set in the late 1950s in Nashville and building to a revelation at the end regarding the whole series, is now off the table in that sense — to my relief. Number four will instead focus on events tied to World War II and the German expressionist film movement’s influence of film noir. Hector will narrate book four, as he did in HEAD GAMES. Number four is fully edited and in cue, and that will be ROLL THE CREDITS, winter of 2011.
Q. When you started HEAD GAMES, was a seven-book series always your ultimate goal for Hector Lassiter? Did you plan out the entire series at that time or did that evolve after writing HEAD GAMES?
Craig: HEAD GAMES was a probable standalone with some secret wiggle room built into the end if I decided to do more with Hector. As I was writing the second novel, TOROS & TORSOS, I came up with the idea for the 1924, Paris book that I originally envisioned as number three. From there the others quickly unfolded. I saw it as a contained series with a definite end. I ended up going to eight because in a first phone conversation with John Schoenfelder, he expressed keen interest in a kind of WWII epic tied to film noir. My eldest daughter, who was also going through an obsessive period over that war and Anne Frank, kept urging me to do something with WWII. Maybe when she’s a teenager she’ll be allowed to read the result.
Q. So, with Hector simply waiting for the publishing green light at this point, what’s in store for Craig McDonald?
Craig: I wish I could tell you with certainty. There are several things out there now and it could go several different ways. I have a trilogy that’s running to the outer edges of genre that’s under consideration…a couple of standalones lurking. And another whole series I wrote before Hector I’d like to get out someday. It’s always an infernal waiting game. Some of this is all just waiting on the genre wheel to turn. My sense of the market right now is that the drive is for the big story…the high-concept novel. I’m thinking series are going to be a harder and harder sale outside the cozy market. The age of the small case is over. I think hard noir and pastiche noir have run their course, too, in some sense.
Q. In addition to being a crime fiction series, the Hector Lassiter series is also very much historical fiction using not only events in history but also very prominent figures from history: Pancho Villa, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, members of the Surrealist Movement, J. Edgar Hoover. What were the driving factors that made you decide to plop Hector’s life into this time frame and have him associate with these figures?
Craig: I was into the notion of writing a secret history of the 20th Century, so Hector was born on January 1, 1900. His actual checkout date is one of the things the series will perhaps address in time. Living up to its title, the events in HEAD GAMES, particularly in the last third, are not necessarily to be trusted.

But there came a point after I wrote the third novel, which is kind of A MOVEABLE FEAST as crime novel, that I decided to actually run from history in that sense of layering in lots of real people. I wrote a Hector set in 1925 Key West that contains no historical figures. It does use a couple of historical crimes, one lifted from Toledo, Ohio, and dropped into the Keys. My greatest fear with this series is to have it turn into something that starts to feel like Forrest Gump or Young Indiana Jones where Hector can’t swing a dead cat without smacking up against a notable personality. So I’ve tried to keep the cast of historical characters to a minimum in terms of numbers. Historical figures will recur, more often than not. Hoover was there lurking in HEAD GAMES and TOROS and others to come. Hemingway is an ongoing Hector friend, ditto Orson, though I’m pretty much done with Welles at this point. Oddly enough, Gertrude Stein crops up in quite a number of the novels.
Fun stuff. Are you enjoying getting to know the man behind the "Legend"? O.k., everyone groan because this is where I say "to be continued" tomorrow! We'll hear more about Craig, his books, and crime fiction. If you have any questions for Craig, leave them in the comments. I'm confident he'll stop by and chat with you if you have some nagging questions, too. In the meantime you can check out his website. You can also check out where he's going to be live, promoting the release of PRINT THE LEGEND.

And, if you haven't already registered to win my ARC copy of PRINT THE LEGEND, time is running out. Make sure you register here to get your name in the drawing. I will see you back here tomorrow for the conclusion to my conversation with Craig McDonald.


Naomi Johnson February 11, 2010 at 8:03 AM  

I hate waiting. But I'll be here tomorrow for the rest of it.

I just hope that with all the changes facing the publishing world right now, that publishers don't lose sight of terrific writers like McDonald.

le0pard13 February 11, 2010 at 10:18 AM  

Great interview, Jen. I hope he adds some west coast dates (Scottsdale, AZ is the closest, so far). Looking forward to the next part with CM. Thanks.

Jen Forbus February 11, 2010 at 6:57 PM  

Naomi, the biggest questions I have about the publishing industry is why they pump so much $$ into publicity for authors who can sell a book just by putting their name on the cover. If they'd push some of the fabulous lesser-knowns, wouldn't that benefit them more in the long run? Anyway, I'm with you. Many of my absolute favs are ones who could possibly be lost in the shuffle simply because no one worked to get their names noticed.

Michael, if nothing else, I'll bet that Craig will be at B'Con this year...incentive to go!!! ;-)

Craig McDonald February 11, 2010 at 8:57 PM  

Thanks so much again for the wonderful interview and questions...

leOpard13: Sorry I couldn't stray further west this year. The tour dates announced are pretty much it in terms of heavy road work this time... At this point, I think I'm sitting out B-Con with an eye to returning to that event when it comes to St. Louis.


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