Turnabout’s fair play, right? Three years ago, novelist, editor, and anthologist Ed Gorman interviewed me for Mystery Scene magazine. (You’ll find that piece here.) Today my Kirkus Reviews column is devoted to a brief inquisition of Gorman.
I’ve wanted to ask this author about his life and career and literary contributions for what seems like a very long time. But I never found the right reason or opportunity to do so until just recently, after I enjoyed reading his new novel, Flashpoint (Severn House)--the fifth and possibly final
entry in his series about Dev Conrad, a modern American political consultant and troubleshooter, who debuted in Sleeping Dogs (2008). The now 71-year-old Gorman, an almost lifelong resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has been laboring in the trenches of crime fiction (as well as horror fiction and western fiction) ever since the mid-1980s, following his transition from commercial advertising work to full-time writing. During those decades--and occasionally under the pseudonyms Daniel Ransom or E.J. (for Edward Joseph) Gorman--he’s turned out something between 70 and 100 novels, enough that he’s actually lost count. He’s penned novels in series as well myriad briefer
tales, and edited numerous anthologies of short stories (several, like By Hook or
By Crook, with Martin H. Greenberg). He’s been so prolific over the years, Bookreporter once joked that he “seems to have printer’s ink flowing through his veins ...”
Gorman’s efforts have not gone unrecognized. As I mention in today’s Kirkus column, he has at various times received the Shamus Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Spur Award, and The Eye, the lifetime achievement award given out by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA). But his influence doesn’t stop there. Together with author Robert J. Randisi, in 1985 he created Mystery Scene magazine, for which he still pens a regular column, “Gormania.” From 2008 to 2009 he served as president of the PWA. And he’s been a frequently enthusiastic supporter (occasionally through his blog) of efforts by other
wordsmiths looking to break into the fiction-writing game or win greater
recognition for their talents.
“Ed Gorman’s talent as a writer is matched only by his generosity to other writers,” Randisi told me in a recent e-note. “Indeed, he’s a true Renaissance man because he has also been columnist, reviewer, and publisher in this business. But I’ve also been privileged over the years to have Ed as a friend, and perhaps that is where he has been the most invaluable.”
Although Gorman himself leans heavily in the direction of modesty, it’s certainly not uncommon to hear colleagues sing his praises.
“I became an Ed Gorman fan in the mid-’80s after buying one of his Jack Dwyer
books, Murder Straight Up , on impulse,” explains author Dick Lochte (Blues in the Night), another PWA ex-president. “Since then I’ve never read a sentence he’s written that I didn’t like, but I’ve a special fondness for his Sam McCain novels
which, aside from being cleverly crafted whodunits, are evocations of small-town
America on the brink of the 1960s shake-up; [they’re] as sweetly nostalgic and
poignant and politically astute as any you can find in fiction. Aside from
being a fine writer and a tireless supporter of genre fiction, Ed happens to be
a good friend. No matter what’s going on in his life--and a lot usually is--he
always seems to find time to offer help when needed. Were it not for his encouragement, my admittedly thin bibliography would be a couple of books and at least half a dozen short stories shy. Bottom line, the man is a true gent.”
(Left) The prolific Ed Gorman
Muscatine, Iowa, novelist Max Allan Collins (Target Lancer), who Gorman acknowledges was instrumental in showing him how to compose fiction at length, says that “One of my proudest achievements is being part of Ed Gorman’s transition from writer of literary short stories to full-fledged mystery novelist. This is not to say he stopped writing short stories or being literary, either--I think he’s probably my generation’s best writer of short crime fiction, meaning not to take away from his fine and distinctive novels. Ed’s work is characterized by melancholy and compassion,
and he is among the most human and humane of contemporary crime writers. We’ve
been friends for many years and he is generous and thoughtful, to say the
least, and I get a kick out of having once been thought to be Ed Gorman. Ed is
notoriously reluctant to make public appearances, despite an affability second to none. For the first 10 years of his crime-writing career, people would occasionally assume that that other Iowa writer was me under a pen name. I’m pleased that anybody would think I’m that good.”
Although he’s been slowed down over the last dozen years by an incurable cancer, multiple myeloma, Gorman continues to get up every day and fulfill the demands of his self-inflicted sentence as an author. It’s what he does. It’s what he loves. Earlier this month, I sent him dozens of questions via e-mail, asking him about his personal and professional history, his proclivity toward writing in a variety of genres, his debts to the classic Gold Medal novels, his dislike of rewriting, why he thinks we’re seeing another “golden age” of crime fiction, and ... well, many other subjects. His responses to a few of those fit into today’s Kirkus column; the rest can be found below.
J. Kingston Pierce: Were your parents big readers?
Ed Gorman: My mother and father both came from Irish farming communities and moved to Cedar Rapids when they were young. My mother consumed magazines by the ton and my father was a reader of pulp magazines until the ’50s, when he switched to
paperbacks. He especially enjoyed hard-boiled mysteries, westerns, and history.
JKP: And were they the ones who got you interested in reading?
EG: My mother started taking me to the library when I was 4. I was hooked immediately.
JKP: As a boy, what did you want to be when you grew up?
EG: From fifth grade on I wanted to be writer. I never thought about being anything else.
JKP: I understand that you grew up in some fairly rough neighborhoods, and practiced a certain amount of petty thievery and shoplifting in your youth, but that you were eventually scared straight. What’s the story there?
EG: My criminal career, as such, ended because of two experiences. A guy who wanted to get back at a friend of mine convinced his [female] cousin to accuse [my
friend] of stealing one of their purses. I happened to be with him the night
she came into the Rexall where we were having burgers after pumping gas for six
hours. We didn’t know either one of them. We ate and left, and later that night
detectives came to our homes and accused us of stealing the purse, which,
according to the girl, contained enough money to make it grand larceny. That
was followed by two weeks of hell--the line-up, four or five times at the
police station, and a lawyer who advised my parents maybe I should plead guilty
to avoid reform school, though there was no guarantee I wouldn’t wind up there.
Finally the girl, apparently feeling guilty about setting us up, turned herself
The other incident concerned a friend of mine who started hanging around this guy who’d just gotten out of prison and come back to the old neighborhood. We all remembered him. He was a punk, violent but a coward. I’d seen him back out of two or three fights he’d started. But he had a big influence on my friend. One night they held up a gas station and killed a poor 16-year-old kid with a shotgun.
During this time I’d been expelled from two high schools. My girlfriend had broken up with me and I’d gone insane. ... I was in pain 24/7. Alcohol helped. Then much later I started in on various drugs. I was a terrible angry drunk.
JKP: But you went on to attend Coe College in Cedar Rapids, right? With what sort of degree did you graduate from there?
EG: I didn’t graduate. The alcohol took its toll. I love Coe and owe it a great deal. Such great professors. I was a bum; my occupation for a long time.
JKP: Like your fellow mystery writers Dorothy L. Sayers and Philip
Kerr, you started out doing advertising work. Can you tell us what you did
in that field?
EG: I started out as a copywriter in Des Moines, then worked by phone and mail for a small group in Chicago, then went back to Cedar Rapids and worked there for three different agencies, and finally had a three-person shop of my own. I worked for a time out of Chicago producing commercials.
I should say here that in my 18 years of editing Mystery Scene I probably talked to 50 writers who were or had been in advertising, and only three or four of them had anything good to say about the experience. I met some decent, humane people, for sure, in the business, but more often than not I met people who saw
advertising as this great romantic calling. I worked for two weeks for a
creative director who said that if you didn’t own a Porsche after two years of
working for him you weren’t doing your job. A deep thinker, obviously. He just
couldn’t believe I was walking away from such a very nice salary. That was when
I started writing political speeches. I’m sure I learned things writing copy.
Brevity if nothing else.
JKP: In what year did you stop drinking, and why?
EG: In May of 1974. One Friday night I got into some drunken, angry scene in a restaurant and was reminded of this by a young woman who called me at 2 a.m. She said she’d gotten my name off a toilet wall. I still have no idea who she was. Or why she called. I remember, being semi-sober by then, telling her all sorts of lies about myself. We must have talked for half an hour.
When I woke up the next morning one of the first things I
thought of was going to a pawn shop and buying a gun. I really was at the end.
My life was completely out of control. I’d realized that for years, but for
some reason that morning I couldn’t handle it any longer. I’d destroyed a
marriage, been a terrible father, had turned myself into both a demon and a
public joke--and knew I couldn’t go on. I rented a rustic cabin far up on the
Iowa River. I stayed there and got clean. I walked a lot and cried a lot. I was
terrified of going back. I was also scared that I couldn’t stay away from
alcohol and drugs, that the cabin stay had been a fluke. And facing [the past] 16
years of various selfish sins and moments of bottle and drug craziness--facing
my past sober was really scary. Every once in a while, as the months rolled on,
I’d buy a fifth of whiskey and just set it on the table. Tempting myself but
never giving in. I loved being clean and I still do. I’m one of the blessed ones.
JKP: I read online that you “began writing to fill time after giving up drinking.” Is that an accurate statement?
EG: Partly. Even during my drinking days I managed to do some writing, but after I got clean I had so much time on my hands--I used to sit in bars for hours--that I went at it seriously, writing a lot of short stories, selling them mostly to downscale literary magazines and some very downscale men’s magazines. In 1976 I won a Charles Scribner’s prize for a short story and that gave me a lot of
JKP: Were you still laboring away in the advertising trenches at the time you began working on fiction?
EG: Yes, after I’d sobered up. I always tried to sneak an hour or two on my stories during the workday. I was not what you’d call a loyal employee.
JKP: Is it correct that you became a full-time writer in 1989?
EG: Yes. That was when I turned my three-person agency over to my artist co-worker, Gail Cross, who is now one of the most in-demand book designers in the field. As I said, I needed
to take on quickie writing gigs from time to time. I had no trouble selling novels generally, but publishers are not noted for their quick pay practices.
JKP: My understanding is that you’ve been married twice. During what period did your first marriage last?
EG: From 1964 to 1968. I destroyed it with my drinking.
JKP: And later you wed the former Carol Maxwell, who’s now an author in her own
right. How and when did you meet her?
EG: In 1979 I did TV commercials for a bank. Somebody told me that a Carol Maxwell was a good actress with a lot of work behind her at the University of Iowa and numerous other venues, so I called her and asked her to audition. Sometimes I pulled in Chicago talent, but I’d taken a bath on an industrial film I’d done and wanted to make up for it with this campaign. She read beautifully and was great
looking, It took awhile for us to get together romantically, but it was worth
the wait. She’s given me the life I’d always longed for. Thirty-plus years of
it. I got the better end of the deal, believe me.
JKP: I’m pretty sure that my initial exposure to your work was the 1995 novel The First Lady, a standalone tale about a president’s wife who’s accused of murder. However, that book came out a decade after you started publishing fiction. I believe
your first two novels to see print were Rough Cut and New, Improved
Murder, both released in 1985--and both of which starred cop-turned-private
eye Jack Dwyer, who solved crimes in a barely disguised Cedar Rapids. Were those
actually the first two novels you wrote, or did you try your hand at earlier
books that never saw print?
EG: The First Lady was one of three bestseller-type novels I wrote. They weren’t personal books.
I’d never been able to finish a novel until I met Max Allan Collins. I must have started and stopped novels 50 times (not an exaggeration) over the years. Max let me read his books in manuscript. Seeing novels in typed form took away the mystery. Plus, he gave me the single best piece of writerly advice I’ve ever gotten: Write the book all the way through without looking back. Then do your revision. Don’t stop and start.
Two agents and six or seven houses turned down Rough
Cut. They all complained that the narrator was a borderline psychotic.
A young junior editor at St. Martin’s picked it up out of slush, liked it,
fought for it, and bought it. One of the big Eastern newspapers headlined the
review, “A Hate Letter to the Advertising Industry.” I still don’t think that’s
accurate. As I said, I met a lot of decent people in advertising. By the time Rough Cut was published (a year and a half after I finished it), I’d written two more novels and they both sold quickly.
JKP: Can you describe how you felt, seeing your first novels in print?
EG: Thrilled. When the first copy arrived I just sat down and stared at it. I was 40 years old and this had been my dream since I was 8 or 9.
JKP: How has publishing changed for the better--and for the worse--since the time you sold your first novel?
EG: It’s corporate now. I feel sorry for the editors. So many have lost jobs, so many can’t get published books that they love.
JKP: Your fiction has been all over the map, falling into genres from crime fiction and political thrillers to horror and westerns. Most people would be pretty happy to master just one field of fiction. Was a tighter focus ever in the cards for you?
EG: Being all over the map has seriously damaged my career. Most successful writers stick to one genre; some successful writers write the same book again and again. I didn’t choose all these genres consciously. It was just that I’d grown up reading all over the place, so I had genuine interest in them. I also had
heroes in each of these genres and I tried to emulate them.
JKP: In an interview you did three years ago with Diabolical Radio, you suggested that some of the books you’ve produced have been of, let’s say, lesser quality than others. And Mike Ashley wrote in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction that you’ve actually dismissed the horror/science fiction novels you wrote under the pseudonym Daniel Ransom as “trash.” Being as prolific a writer as you are, do you simply accept that you have to put your name on a clunker now and then? Or have you only decided in retrospect that some of your books didn’t measured up to your expectations?
EG: The first three or four Daniel Ransom novels really are trash. One of them I don’t even have a copy of. Don’t want one. Starting with Night Caller  they began getting respectable, even--sometimes--enthusiastic reviews. The early ones I wrote strictly to market, trying to make sales. When I moved Ransom to [publisher] DAW the books improved a good deal, thanks to my fine editor, Sheila Gilbert. I’ve learned a lot from her. I do my best with every novel and story. As John D. MacDonald, a man even more prolific than I used to be, said, no matter how hard you try, some just work out better than others.
I will say that I’ve tried my best to honor the genres I’ve worked in. [Critic] Dorothy B. Hughes felt that The Autumn Dead  was a successful new approach to the private-eye novel; and The Washington Post ran a long rave by the literary writer Carolyn See about the first Sam McCain novel, The Day the Music Died . In thrillers, both Blood Moon  and The
Midnight Room  were hailed as significantly fresh approaches to
the serial-killer novel. In horror, Cage of Night  is still in print after 18 years, and my collection Cages  won the International Horror Award for the year, the previous winners being Stephen King and Richard Matheson. And I won a Spur award for my short story “The Face,” and of my four Leo Guild novels, Publishers Weekly said that my westerns were “written for grown-ups.”
JKP: It’s been said that the two “overriding influences” on your fiction are old Gold Medal novels and Ernest Hemingway. Do you think that’s true?
EG: Certainly the Gold Medal novels shaped me, Hemingway less so as the years go on. I owe a great debt to Max Collins and Bill Pronzini for my crime fiction; I made a study of their books just as I did the work of Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, and John D. MacDonald.
JKP: Younger readers might not be familiar with Gold Medal Books. What contributions would you say that that publisher made to the crime-fiction genre?
EG: The key Gold Medal writers such as John D. MacDonald, Peter Rabe. Charles Williams, Vin Packer, Gil Brewer, Lawrence Block, Malcolm Braly, and others brought style and shrewd social and psychological assessments of various American societies to the crime novels.
JKP: You told Vince Keenan in a 2010 interview that “Ross Macdonald
was the finest writer of private detective fiction ever. Flat out.” First off,
why do think that way?
EG: Voice, style, and a generous troubled heart. There are scenes in his novels that can hurt you. And haunt you.
JKP: And in what ways has Macdonald’s work influenced your own?
EG: I’ve never felt any influence. I would never even try to imitate him in any way, because he was too good.
JKP: You’ve also mentioned Ed McBain as a principal influence on your fiction. In what specific ways do you think that’s been true?
EG: Voice and a social sense and scene structure. He could move you through a book like nobody else.
JKP: You’ve been working hard at this game a long time, so it’s likely that you’ve influenced other writers, in turn. Being immodest for a moment, tell me: What do you think other, younger wordsmiths can learn from your own fiction?
EG: I see on various blogs that some of the younger writes like my books and stories--and a number of them have written me letters--but the only impression I have is that they like the writing itself and my viewpoint as an outsider. They also like the consistency of that viewpoint being the same whichever genre I’m working
JKP: You have said that you think your fiction is, on the whole, generally optimistic. Yet so many others define it as “dark.” How do you explain that difference of viewpoints?
EG: By that I meant that I’m not nihilistic. Certainly a good deal of my work is dark. Both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus have pointed out that the Sam McCain books, for all their wry humor, are dark and serious books. Booklist even compared them to novels by Lawrence Block and Elmore
Leonard. But I’m not much for good and evil writ large. I do believe there
are some truly evil people, but in my experience most folks will do the decent
thing when they have to consciously choose.
JKP: I’ve heard that you are not fond of rewriting, that you’d rather throw a book away than go through any significant efforts to rework it. Is that true, and if so, how many books do you think you’ve round-filed over the course of your career?
EG: That was true until I got cancer the first time. I can no longer afford that indulgence. Now I do two and sometimes three drafts of everything. I also have a private editor, Linda Seibels, read my final draft. She tears into it for one more go-around. As for how many I’ve round-filed, I’d say at least 10 and maybe a few more.
JKP: OK, since you’ve brought it up, let’s talk about your health. As I understand it, you were diagnosed around 2001 with an incurable cancer. What sort of cancer do you have?
EG: In November of 2001 I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. A few
people thought I was sort of cavalier about it--in denial--but my chances of survival
were 90 percent. Three months later, though, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is incurable. I was not cavalier about that.
JKP: Earlier this year, I believe, you went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota
for a stem-cell transplant. How did that go, and what’s your current prognosis?
EG: It was the worst physical experience of my life. Nothing ever came close. But I’m now 100 percent cancer free, so it was worth it. Because multiple myeloma is incurable, it will come back. I know people who’ve gone only three years before it’s returned, and I’ve also known a man who’s 12 years cancer free and a woman
JKP: You’ve written eight or nine series over the last 30 years, but also dozens of standalone novels. What, to you, are the relative merits or producing series versus standalones?
EG: I prefer standalones. They offer me more freedom.
JKP: Do you identify with any one of your series protagonists more than the others?
EG: I suppose Sam McCain and Dev Conrad are the two most like me, but they really aren’t in any strict sense me.
JKP: You’ve earned a great number of fans with your series about Sam McCain,
a compassionate lawyer/private eye in 1950s and ’60s Iowa. How did that series
come in to being, and what is it about McCain that makes him such a durable
EG: I got tired of all the Happy Days B.S. The ’50s were a good time if you were white, Christian, middle-class, and straight. If you weren’t you had big problems. I wanted to tell the truth about the ’50s.
JKP: Reading the McCain tales, I get the impression that you identify strongly with the era in which they’re set. Is that the case?
EG: I do identify with the ’50s and ’60s. For all the turmoil writhing beneath the official Ozzie and Harriet mentality, the country was more understandable. For good and ill alike there was a commonality that was destroyed during the anti-[Vietnam] War years. I hated the war, but the political schism it created has never been resolved. And it was then that the destruction of the middle-class began.
JKP: I keep hearing that you’re going to end the Sam McCain series ... and yet you continue to come up with new installments, mostly recently 2011’s Bad Moon Rising. That makes nine McCain books. Do you expect to keep the series going?
EG: One more I think. Sam was drafted at the end of Bad Moon Rising. I think readers will be surprised by Riders on the Storm.
JKP: Your 2008 novel, Sleeping Dogs, introduced yet another series star, resourceful political consultant Dev Conrad. You’d concocted novels before about politicians and their races and woes before, but here you were committing yourself to a succession of books that examine the ins and outs, ups and downs and turnarounds of modern American campaigning. What do you hope to achieve with the Conrad series?
EG: As I said earlier, those three political best-seller type novels I wrote were done for market. My editor, a very wise and nice guy, wanted me to sell better. But they weren’t personal novels for me. Dev Conrad is very personal. He’s a version of me, for one thing, and he certainly reflects my cynical opinion of our
JKP: What do you see in Conrad that makes him a distinctly different character from your previous series protagonists?
EG: He’s hipper, more worldly, more jaded.
JKP: Your new Conrad novel, Flashpoint, focuses on a longtime U.S. senator from Illinois, Robert Logan, who’s implicated in the beating death of a younger woman who had been present at several of his recent campaign events, and with whom some of his staffers (as well as his aggrieved wife) are convinced he’s been having a relationship. However, the tale is also about the feeding frenzy that the modern media engage in when they think an officeholder has been tripped up by scandal. You spent some time penning political speeches during your early years as a freelance writer. Did you see these dynamics at work then, or was your story inspired by more recent developments?
EG: I think being deserted by your friends in political scandals has always been the case. I remember that a few of [Richard] Nixon’s friends stood by him till the end. Whatever you thought of Nixon, you had to be moved by the loyalty of his friends.
JKP: Deep into Flashpoint, someone says to Conrad:
“I’ve talked to a few of your other clients. We all think that deep down you
hate politicians.” Conrad insists that he doesn’t hate politicians any more
than he despises political consultants, that “we’re all guilty” of turning
politics into a sporting event divorced from real-world outcomes. Does that
reflect your own viewpoint?
EG: Absolutely. And it’s true. Pols are certainly cynical; the people who handle them even more so, including Dev.
JKP: Are you currently working on another Dev Conrad book?
EG: There may not be another Dev. I haven’t made up my mind yet.
JKP: What other projects are you laboring over right now?
EG: I’m writing a Sam McCain short story to help me feel my way through the next novel. I’ve done this trial-run thing before and it generally helps.
JKP: In 1985 you co-founded Mystery Scene magazine with fellow author Robert J. Randisi. Why did you think that the world needed such a publication? And did you expect Mystery Scene to still be available and popular in 2013?
EG: Science fiction had the great news magazine Locus, we just thought mystery deserved its own. I have to say that I ran the magazine for 18 years pretty much as my own fanzine--I covered anything I felt like: Westerns, horror, even romance sometimes. [Publishers] Kate Stine and Brian Skupin have turned it into a brilliant, beautiful professional magazine.
JKP: When critics talk about the “Golden Age of Crime Fiction,” they’re most often referencing the 1920s and ’30s. Yet you’ve referred to the 21st century as being another such Golden Age. How do you make that case?
EG: Marcia Muller, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott,
Michael Connelly, Nancy Pickard, James W. Hall, Lawrence Block, Vicki Hendricks, James Lee Burke, and
so on. The so-called Golden Age didn’t come close.
JKP: Among the folks who might be considered up-and-coming writers in this genre, whose work has impressed you?
EG: Tom Piccirilli, Dave Zeltserman, Duane Swierczynski, and many more.
JKP: As an author, what do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? Conversely, what has been your greatest regret?
EG: I think the voice in my best books is their greatest recommendation and the voice informs the writing. My regret is that I wish I had tried larger-scale novels, but I am a child of Gold Medal. To me the ideal number of words is still 60,000. Look at those perfect little novels of [Georges] Simenon, how rich they are.
JKP: Now this: As a man, what’s been your greatest
accomplishment? And your greatest regret?
EG: Accomplishment--getting clean and sober. Regret--how I destroyed my first marriage.
JKP: If you could have grown up to be any other novelist, who would it have been? And why?
EG: Graham Greene. To be such a great storyteller and at the same time such a gifted and powerful observer of the human condition.
JKP: After all these years, what weakness do you still have as a writer?
EG: I still think I wander away from the story sometimes. I revere tight novels, which is just one of the reasons I’m such a Megan Abbott fan. Not a word too many, not a word misplaced.
JKP: Finally, you weren’t among the guests at the 2011 Bouchercon in St. Louis, during which the Private Eye Writers of America named you the recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award, The Eye. But how did
it feel to win that sort of recognition from a group of writers dedicated to
the detective story?
EG: I was completely surprised when Bob [Randisi] and Max [Collins] told me about it over one of the long lunches we have with our wives in Amana, Iowa. I’m not sure I deserved it--I mean that--but I am not about to give it back. It is a real
milestone in my career and I really appreciate it.