It’s good to be Craig McDonald. The Columbus, Ohio-based journalist came on strong in 2007 with his debut novel, Head Games, which introduced the world to Hector Lassiter. Lassiter, a pulp writer and member of the Lost Generation, counts Ernest “Hem” Hemingway and Orson Welles among his best friends and “lives what he writes and writes what he lives.” Far from being merely a creature of wishful thinking on the author’s part, Lassiter is a terrific lens through which readers can watch history unfold in the troubled 20th century. Head Games is nothing if not bold.
If palling around with the biggest author and biggest filmmaker of the 1900s isn’t bold enough, McDonald includes a tryst with Marlene Dietrich and features Senator Prescott Bush as an unseen villain. The result is a cross-country chase that includes one of America’s most powerful political families, aging Mexican revolutionaries, the FBI, and a bunch of inept frat boys from Yale’s elite Skull and Bones society.
Not content with that, McDonald puts “Hem” front and center in his brand-new follow-up novel, Toros & Torsos, which opens with a string of grisly murders ahead of the killer hurricane that struck the Florida Keys in 1935. As Bleak House releases Toros, McDonald has already racked up Edgar, Anthony, Crimespree, and Gumshoe award nominations for Head Games.
Shortly after McDonald returned home from this year’s Bouchercon convention in Baltimore, I spoke with him about the creation of his protagonist, his interest in Ernest Hemingway, his move from Bleak House books to St. Martin’s Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, and whether Marilyn Monroe might follow Dietrich into Hector Lassiter’s bed.
Jim Winter: You were nominated for an Edgar and an Anthony this year. You have to be floating to have made that kind of splash.
Craig McDonald: It’s the kind of thing you can’t think about or plan for. It’s also particularly wonderful to have nominations for those two awards, as the Edgar judges are fellow authors and the Anthonys are, at base, reader-chosen awards. Head Games was also a finalist for the Crimespree and Gumshoe awards and made several year’s-best lists, so it was a dizzying, gratifying reception for a fairly unusual debut novel. I’m still bowled over by it all.
JW: Hector Lassiter seems to be very much in the mold of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. He even arrives on the scene bearing the all-too-common disdain for Mickey Spillane.
CM: Part of that is just depicting a writer’s natural competitiveness regarding sales figures and public standing; and in that sense, Spillane was kind of the Dan Brown of his day. It’s also emerging from book to book that Hector was one of those writers in Paris in the 1920s and had serious literary ambitions. The third novel (set largely in 1965) will give you more of a sense of Hector’s real literary range and standing as the 1960s are getting on.
JW: How much of Hector is you? And how much is Hector more a product of his times?
CM: I’m going to come clean here for the first time. Usually I say Hector is an amalgam of people like Hemingway, Jonathan Latimer, Cornell Woolrich, and the like, and that’s true to a degree. But there was a particular writer I had in mind. I wasn’t going to point to him as the real inspiration for Hector while he remained alive. All too sadly, I can now confess. Ken Bruen, who read Head Games very early, got it. Craig Holden [Matala, The Jazz Bird] was the other one. Craig wrote me a short note that said, “Hah! Lassiter is James Crumley.” Craig Holden is right. I even gave Hector the same number of wives. Mr. Crumley also very kindly blurbed Head Games, and I still wonder if he maybe tumbled to his inspiration for the character as he read the novel.
That said, in Toros, the Lassiter character is moving much more my way; and in the Hollywood section of Toros, Hector is, for the only time in the series, really about my age and the distance between us is pretty narrow there. But Hector is a 20th-century man, and a veteran, with all that implies.
JW: Some would say bedding Marlene Dietrich would be fanboy fantasy, yet you make the interplay between your protagonist and Dietrich very believable.
CM: Thanks so much, Jim. She’s an interesting woman to write. Marlene approached love and sex in the manner of the men of the time. She wasn’t one for love affairs and wasn’t possessive or one to be possessed. She was a kind of force of nature and very tight with Orson Welles, with Hemingway, and with several other writers of the time. She and Hector would have been inevitable, on many levels.
JW: Some would say George W. Bush’s cameo in Head Games cuts him more slack than usual. Was there a reason for that, or did the story dictate using him as a reluctant player in the game?
CM: Actually, I’ve taken heat from both directions: those who say I was too hard on him, and those who say I didn’t go nearly far enough. For me, Head Games is now nearly four years old and a lot has obviously happened in those years.
But the fact is, I’m writing George W. in period, and writing him as we all are when we’re young and in college (and in his case, coming of age during the 1960s). I was also depicting him as a guy with some real deep and grudge-bearing father issues. My inclination was to go for the character study over the political commentary or subtext, because at the end of the day, I’m writing a novel, not trying to score political points, though I can think of a few crime and mystery writers who would likely disagree with me about those aims.
JW: Do you plan to see Oliver Stone’s movie W?
CM: Nah. Stone’s Kennedy movie left me with enough disquiet about his approach to historical figures and materials [that I decided] to give his Nixon movie, his Castro movie, and this one a wide pass. I’m sitting here now and trying to remember the last decent Oliver Stone movie …
JW: Turning to Hemingway, he is probably your most fully realized character outside of Hector.
CM: Hem’s one of the two or three key figures in Hector’s life. Their relationship to one another, and their respective approaches to writing and the writer’s life, is a major component of this seven-novel-cycle that is the Hector Lassiter series. All seven books are complete and I have the rare luxury of being able to tweak and tie them together to form a bigger, tightly integrated work so I know exactly how Hem fits into that bigger plan. In essence, we’ll eventually get the whole span of their creative lives. One of the novels (the one I originally envisioned being the third to appear, but which will now appear later), is set in one week in Paris in 1924 and we see Hector and Hem as young, unknown writers.
JW: How long have you been interested in Hemingway?
CM: Since my teens, really. I’ve read it all … too much, probably--all the novels and short stories, many times. The posthumous stuff, the letters, the journalism. And I have, literally, a bookcase of stuff on Hem ranging from biographies to memoirs to deep-think scholarly studies. I’m steeped in Hemingway to a level that might well be unhealthy.
JW: I was particularly impressed with how you showed Hemingway in his decline, how he had trouble living up to his own image of himself.
CM: Edmund Wilson said Hemingway was his own worst-invented character, but it goes deeper, for me. As I have a character in Toros say, and I believe this, Hem could only write what he could live or do himself, and as the distance between his fiction and his failing health deepened and widened, he was destroyed by his own self-forged public image. Hem is for many writers what Elvis [Presley] is for musicians: the goal, the tragedy … the great cautionary example.
JW: I notice the follow-up to Toros & Torsos focuses on Hemingway’s death. Was it your original intent to write a sequel about Hemingway?
CM: Print the Legend (coming fall 2009) will really explore those last crazy days of Hem’s, and the FBI’s role in his self-destruction. As I said, I wrote seven novels and Hem figures as an on-the-page character in three of them. He casts a long shadow across the first, Head Games. Originally, I had a planned sequence for these novels in terms of publication order. But my new editor, John Schoenfelder, read all seven novels and wanted to reboot the series at Thomas Dunne with what I regarded as the sixth and seventh novels. So I went with his proposition, and those will now be books numbers three and four to be printed. As John reminded me, time is used in a very unusual way in the Lassiter series, so I don’t need to be slavish to chronology. Originally, Print the Legend would have been book number six, but as it comes right off the closing lines of Toros, it’s going to look planned and inevitable in terms of this now being the third installment.
JW: Toros begins during the run-up and aftermath to the 1935 killer hurricane in the Florida Keys. It might interest you to know I started reading that book the weekend Hurricane Ike reached Ohio.
CM: I was actually working on some promotional things involving Toros and the Great Keys Hurricane when our Midwestern state was struck by Ike. That hard, sustained, hours-long wind was about what I imagined for Toros. Then I went outside and looked at all the roofs stripped of shingles … the broken trees and houses stripped of siding. A Gulf Coast hurricane laying waste to Ohio? It was like another sign of the apocalypse.
JW: And how long did you go without power?
CM: A little over a day. But parts of Columbus went more than a week without power. Then there were water shortages because the water-storage tanks were depleted and took a while to refill because of electrically driven pumps that power them.
JW: Orson Welles also plays a big role in your fiction. Did you find that his voice came naturally, given his larger-than-life persona?
CM: He’s the filmmaker equivalent of Hemingway for me. I know his stuff, backward and forward, and there are many, many interviews with him available to explore and help get at that voice and attitude. He’s comparatively easy for me to catch, I suppose for that reason. For Hem’s voice, I went back to his letters, which are informal and frank and very conversational--a world apart from Hem’s fiction-writing voice.
JW: Did you see the film RKO 281, with Liev Schreiber playing Orson Welles? If so, what did you think?
CM: Afraid I haven’t seen RKO 281. I’m going to have to look it up. The other piece I’d love to see, but haven’t gotten access to yet, is a short film (Five Minutes, Mr. Welles) that Vincent D’Onofrio put together in which he plays Orson Welles prepping to do his famous scene with Joseph Cotten on the Prater Park Ferris Wheel in The Third Man. The story goes [that] Vincent did it to vindicate his own acting skills, because D’Onofrio was upset that after being cast as Welles in the movie Ed Wood, his voice was dubbed by Maurice LaMarche, the guy who voiced the Brain on the [TV cartoon series] Pinky and the Brain.
JW: Getting back to the magnetic Marlene Dietrich, she appears to be the final piece in this trinity in Hector Lassiter’s life: Dietrich, Hemingway, and Welles.
CM: They were a trinity in real life, and they were all iconic; so, yes, there is a tight link there. That said, Orson’s pretty much out of the series after Toros & Torsos.
JW: Any chance that Hector might come across, say, Marilyn Monroe? (OK, I admit: that’s more the interviewer’s fantasy.)
CM: In Head Games, there’s an article written about Hector by his young poet-interviewer, Bud Fiske, that mentions Hector having been spotted with Marilyn on his arm, once, but no, I won’t be doing more with that. The seven books are all in my rear-view mirror, and while there may be tweaks in editing, I know what happens, and when, and there’s a real concentration of stuff in this series that tends to eat up the 1950s and most of the 1960s, taking us well past [Monroe’s] death. Hector just wouldn’t have had time, or he’d have been married. When he’s single, Hector’s quite the lady’s man; but when he’s married, even badly, Hector is still faithful. So I don’t think he and Marilyn happened, or would have--he tends toward strong, self-possessed women.
JW: What about other writers? I’d be curious to see how Hector reacts to Raymond Chandler or William Faulkner. Or perhaps even Ross Macdonald.
CM: Hector was introduced in a short story called “The Last Interview” where he gives short, sharp impressions of [Dashiell] Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, and [Agatha] Christie, among others. That said, other volumes will give us in-person glimpses of Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Lester Dent, and a young Rod Serling, among others. We also will meet the key woman in Hector’s life, another crime novelist more in the Craig Rice-mold, who really made Hector the kind of writer he is.
Hector, like me, would have found Faulkner unreadable. I truly believe there are two camps: Camp Hemingway, and Camp Faulkner.