Monday, January 12, 2009

“His Support Was Unconditional”

(Editor’s note: It seems that when we were putting together The Rap Sheet’s two part tribute to Donald E. Westlake, we forgot to ask Max Allan Collins--author of The First Quarry and co-author of Mickey Spillane’s The Goliath Bone--for his recollections of the late, lamented novelist. Fortunately, earlier today Collins sent us the following addition to our tribute package.)

I was lucky to have as mentors my two favorite mystery writers: Donald E. Westlake and Mickey Spillane. Of the two, Don was much more the hands-on mentor, whereas Mickey was initially just a writer I learned from by reading him and, later, the old pro I would go to for advice (“Take your wallet out of your back pocket before you sit down at the machine--you’ll save on your ass and your spine”).

Don, on the other hand, came along at just the right time. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, I was attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and coming into contact with some really fine literary writers--primarily Richard Yates of Revolutionary Road fame, who was the other major mentor of my career, but also Gina Berriault, John Leggett, and Walter Tevis (I have a signed Gold Medal copy of The Man Who Fell to Earth). With the partial exception of Tevis, these were not writers with much feel for commercial fiction, particularly genre fiction, and much of what I learned from them--in particular Yates--was how to get away from conventions and clichés. Yates once said to me, “You writing, ‘He broke a bottle over the edge of the table like a tough guy in a B movie’ doesn’t make it any less like a B movie.”

This is where Westlake enters. I had made the startling discovery, courtesy of an Anthony Boucher review in The New York Times, that my two favorite contemporary mystery writers, the whimsical Donald E. Westlake and the stark Richard Stark, were the same guy. This sent me in search of the man, and I really don’t remember how I made contact, whether simply writing one of his publishers or possibly using Yates to obtain his address.

At any rate, I wrote him a long, effusive fan letter, and he sent back an equally lengthy reply, and for more than 20 years we traded improbably long letters in which he answered countless questions about his books and sent me tracking down all sorts of obscure Westlake stuff in men’s magazines and science-fiction digests. He was particularly impressed, if chagrined, that I’d figured out he’d been Alan Marshall and that I had owned some of the soft-porn books he wrote under that pseudonym (and had owned them before I knew of the Westlake connection, having been a healthy teenage boy who purchased interesting-looking smut novels).

He shared screenplays with me, and unpublished novels, and even admitted that one of the Alan Marshall books (Off Limits, 1961) had been “pretty good,” before a ham-handed editor rewrote it. He talked about the literary novel he had never been able to complete to his satisfaction, begun early in his career, and gave me the inside skinny on Hollywood and what to look out for. I was astonished to learn that he had avoided seeing any number of films taken from his books--if reliable sources had advised him to stay away, he would. I could never be that strong, but this is the Parker side of him--the hard core of professionalism under the candy coating of craft.

Over this period, he answered many queries about his work, including this response to my wondering why Parker’s hair color was blond in one book and black in another: “As to your question about Parker’s hair color, shut up or I’ll throw you down the stairs.” Mostly he was a true mentor, explaining the nuts and bolts, sharing the reasons for his various changes of name and tone, often reading my stuff and providing good criticism. He advised that I have Nate Heller in the first chapter of True Detective (1983) drive across the Loop to paint a picture of 1931 Chicago--“This is where you take the reader on the time machine,” he said. “After that, get off the thing.”

My first agent, Knox Burger, took me on as a result of Richard Yates writing him and Don Westlake calling him. This was particularly generous on Don’s part, because the novel in question, Bait Money (re-published not long ago by Hard Case Crime in Two for the Money) was a shameless Parker imitation. He encouraged me to write sequels about the Parker-esque Nolan character, when a publisher made an offer. His support was unconditional.

But his tone was so friendly and smart that it didn’t take long for me to shake off my awe and stand up to him. When Bait Money sold, Don advised me to leave Iowa at once and move to New York, because New York was “two months ahead of the rest of the country.” It was June, and I wrote back, “This explains why I’m reading an April issue of Time” (a response he loved). I argued that I could write from anywhere (and this was before faxes, much less the Internet) and it wasn’t until I raised the money to make an independent film in my hometown that he wrote to say I had finally proved him wrong about my decision to remain in the American Heartland.

There were several references to me and my work in Parker and Dortmunder novels, which was a thrill, and represented the playful side of a writer who was otherwise very tough-minded about his own work and that of others. But when I admitted I hadn’t liked the film of The Grifters, for which his script was nominated for an Academy Award, he wasn’t at all defensive; he questioned me out of intellectual curiosity only (I assured him I liked the script, my problems were with the direction and what I considered miscasting). He didn’t hold this against me and gave lovely blurbs to several of my indie films (but declined to do so on one he didn’t like).

We were not as close in the ’90s and beyond, though we remained friendly and spoke now and then on the phone and, more recently, exchanged a few e-mails. When Road to Perdition became a film, he wrote and said: “Congratulations! You got the zeitgeist by the tail, and I think it’s wonderful.” One of my last e-mails to him came full circle: a fan letter about one of the more recent Parker novels, and he seemed delighted that I’d liked it so much.

We spent some time together at various mystery-oriented events such as Bouchercon and Edgar banquets. He was not a huge Mickey Spillane fan, but he understood Mickey’s importance, and worked behind the scenes (with our mutual friend Otto Penzler) to see that the Mystery Writers of America honored Mickey as a Grand Master.

In 1995, I introduced Mickey at the banquet where he received his Grand Master Edgar Award. I told a lot of jokes and spoke warmly about him, and the audience response was laugh-filled and just as warm. But my most vivid memory is looking out from the podium and seeing Don sitting there listening to me, with a big fat grin on his face, that expression of gleeful, slightly demented delight that was his alone. I’ll go out on a limb and say it was also a look of pride.

READ MORE:Good-bye, Mr. Westlake,” by Bruce Grossman (Bookgasm); “Donald E. Westlake, 1933-2008,” by William Kristol (The Weekly Standard).

1 comment:

Ali Karim said...

Wonderful memories - just damned wonderful.

I recall meeting Max Collins first time in an elavator in B'con Las Vegas in 2003. I was a little nervous, and didn't want to act like a fanboy [but I did anyway]. And now to read Max's recollections of Don Westlake / Richard Stark just made me smile. Something we all need in these totally "nut-job" days thanks to the economic crisis.

Thanks for sharing such delightful memories. I just love the bid when Don Westlake saw Max's Road to Peredition on the screen

Wonderful, you just made my day