Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Story Behind the Story:
“Print the Legend,” by Craig McDonald

(Editor’s note: Even coming up on 49 years now since the sudden death--by shotgun blast--of Ernest Hemingway, that American novelist and inveterate adventurer seems not to have lost one iota of celebrity cachet. There are still Hemingway look-a-like contests; his home-turned-museum in Key West, Florida, remains a popular tourist attraction; and the author continues to be a subject ripe for fictionalized treatments. The latest littérateur to incorporate “Papa” into his prose is multiple award-nominated Ohio resident Craig McDonald, a journalist and the creator of series writer-detective Hector Lassiter. With his third Lassiter tale, Print the Legend, being released this week by Minotaur Books, we asked McDonald to tell us a bit about what led him to create his protagonist and to drop Lassiter, in this new tale, into the “mystery” surrounding Hem’s demise.)

It’s been said that history is written by the winners. It might as easily be said that history is written by people with agendas. As a career journalist, it pains me to say this, but I just don’t trust a lot of the history I read.

Journalists are, by reputation, a cynical breed. “If your mother says she loves you, go and find a second source,” an old journalism saying goes. I came to my own cynicism about the reliability of received history at an early age.

Never much of a science or math student, I was that kid who always had his nose stuck in a book; that kid who lived mostly in his head. My tastes, from the get-go, ran to pulpy crime fiction and selected slices of 20th-century history.

No generalist, I tended to get obsessed with a person or specific historical event and read everything I could find about that particular preoccupation that fleetingly fired my imagination. Reading history in that intense and idiosyncratic way, from very early on, I started to notice contradictions--some fairly profound. It seemed that for these historians, nailing down even a single event in a definitive way was a task nearly as elusive as trying to nail down mercury.

History, I came to decide, was a quicksilver and frequently treacherous thing.

In my new novel, Print the Legend, my continuing character, Hector Lassiter, remarks that “Historical events ... are too often symptomatic of deeper, darker machinations hatched by conspiring men and devious cabals with impossible-to-fathom aims.”

That could serve as a kind of mission statement for the Hector Lassiter series--novels exploring the artistic tradition and romanticism as the clandestine catalyst for real events. I’ve come to believe that in some cases, one can come closer to “truth” through the vehicle of fiction than biography.

When you write around real topics such as the mysterious theft of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s head and the Bush dynasty’s potential involvement in same (Head Games, 2007), about the possible influence of the surrealist art movement on the slaying of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles (Toros & Torsos, 2008), or about the prospect that author Ernest Hemingway’s death was something other than the suicide history records (this year’s Print the Legend)--when you pepper your novels with historical figures such as Orson Welles, John Dos Passos, and Marlene Dietrich, to name just a few--you nearly always get these three linked questions:

How much research did you do? Where’d you find all this crazy stuff? What’s real, and what did you make up?

That last question is the one you always try to deflect. The primary objective of writing historical fiction is to create a seamless blend that foxes the mind and leaves the reader tantalized and trying to ascertain where the facts end and fiction begins (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”).

Those remaining two questions, on the other hand, are owed some kind of honest answer.

As to where the ideas come from, and how much research goes into shoring up the Lassiter novels, I told author Tom Piccirilli during a 2008 interview that I construct novels around elements or events that really engage my imagination, and I plot to my passions.

That’s about half of it. In my introduction to my collection of author interviews, Rogue Males (2009), I quote Joseph Campbell, who said that it’s the obligation of every journalist to be educated in public.

A great deal of the history underlying the Hector Lassiter stories represents longstanding preoccupations. Many can be traced back to my fledgling days as a journalist.

In my hometown of Grove City, Ohio, I had the experience of knowing, and in one case, interviewing, a couple of old-timers who, like my protagonist Hector Lassiter, rode behind “Black Jack” Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa, after Villa attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916--a crime that in terms of national outrage, and military response, in some ways anticipated those ensuing in the wake of the bloody events of September 11, 2001.

Those two members of the Pershing Expedition were name-checked in my first novel. One of the men had this hefty album of photographs recording the fruitless desert pursuit of Villa. As a young reporter, at his invitation, I spent a couple of hours with the man, listening to his war stories and pouring over his images. When we were finally wrapping up, he said, “Of course, none of this is for publication.” The old guy, it seemed, just wanted a new ear ... some company to pass an afternoon.

About 20 years later, I found myself drawing on my memory of those historical photos and his Pancho Villa stories as I was writing Head Games, investing fiction with the history the old soldier had, those decades before, denied me access to for the purposes of a perishable weekly newspaper story.

Toros & Torsos was informed by my own obsessive readings around the dark lives of the surrealists and a growing body of true-crime books, attempting to indict those artists in the brutal murder of Beth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia, on January 15, 1947. I found myself also writing in reaction to assertions/claims I’d picked up from interviews I had conducted with James Ellroy and John Gilmore (Severed), among others.

The seeds of conspiracy and doubt that inform Print the Legend probably have the deepest roots of any of the historical events or people centering the Hector Lassiter novels I have composed.

As a student, when I first heard an English instructor’s account of Hemingway’s death and the fact that he was alone with his fourth wife on the morning of his passing--a marriage that retained little, if any love--I wondered a bit whether the case for suicide was truly open-and-shut. When I read that Mary Hemingway (shown with her husband, below) had hidden in plain sight the keys to a storeroom where all Hem’s firearms were locked away from the self-destructive writer, I saw more dark story possibility there. Mary’s remark in defense of her actions--“Nobody has a right to deny a man access to his possessions”--struck me as beyond the pale.

I thought someday I’d write a story or a novel around the notion that Mary might have had a more direct hand in her husband’s death than anybody realized. It was just one of those things I’d get to.

Man proposes; God disposes. Lots of plans get made; many projects are contemplated. Time passes. But this thing with Hemingway and his death kept getting pushed back at me.

In the mid-1980s, a local racetrack’s promotion brought Hemingway interviewer George Plimpton through my little corner of Ohio. He was one of several notables slated to race in a celebrity event. All the local journalists went after the other celebrities (Oleg Cassini was quite the draw). I had Plimpton to myself. We spent the time talking about Hemingway, about the just-released posthumous Hemingway novel, The Garden of Eden, and about Mary Hemingway and her dubious handling of Hem’s unfinished works.

Unwittingly, Plimpton left fingerprints all over Print the Legend.

About the time I was busily engaged in doing a final revision of Print the Legend--back when it was still entitled Papa’s Last Wife--I had the opportunity to interview Valerie Hemingway, the author’s onetime secretary.

Valerie had just published her own memoir, Running with the Bulls. As a young Irish journalist, she’d found herself pulled into Hemingway’s orbit as he made a last, tumultuous run through Spain in pursuit of bullfighting materials that would eventually become his posthumous non-fiction work, The Dangerous Summer. Following Hemingway’s death, Valerie fleetingly became a kind of assistant to Mary and traveled to Cuba with the widow in order to gather Hem’s manuscripts there. Eventually, Valerie married Hem’s third and youngest son, Gregory.

From Valerie, I received a bit more insight into Mary Hemingway, and I derived a very different view of Ernest Hemingway’s last years--a profoundly different sense of the arc of his physical and psychological decline--than I’d gotten from a bookcase of biographies collected over a period of two decades or more. Received history.

In Print the Legend, I incorporate a quote from Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

Hemingway, a journalist turned novelist, and a modernist who in some ways pioneered the art of blurring fact and fiction, had his own, prefatory take on historical reality and its slippery nexus with fiction. Hem cautioned: “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Perhaps Print the Legend can do that same thing.

READ MORE: “The Man Behind the Legend,” part I and part II, by Jen Forbus (Jen’s Book Thoughts); “Monday Interview: Craig McDonald,” by John Kenyon (Things I’d Rather Be Doing); “Tuesdays with Tyrus--Guest: Craig McDonald” (Tyrus’ Podcast).


Naomi Johnson said...

Very interesting. My immediate interpretation of Mary's statement regarding denying a man access to his possessions, was that she was referring to his deteriorated mental and physical capabilities rather than his guns. But I didn't know her and maybe she wasn't that deep?

Craig McDonald said...

Mary's comment was specifically tied to having locked Ernest's guns away for a period of time—and dutifully hiding that fateful key—then reversing course and leaving the key in plain sight when Hem was freshly returned from the Mayo Clinic. The quote was Mary's attempt to explain or rationalize her rather bizarre course of action in giving Hem access to those guns when he was in his most fragile mental state.

A long-time Hemingway friend—one of the ones who received a personal phone call from Mary within a few hours of his death by shotgun blast in July of '61—told Hemingway scholar Rose Marie Burwell he was convinced by her actions and words that Mary deliberately handed Hem the means to get at those guns.

Naomi Johnson said...

I am pretty much convinced of her deliberate action myself. Maybe I'm more concerned with her reason for doing so: Was the intent murder or was it assisted suicide - or is there no difference? Did she "grant" him access to his guns because he was forever denied access to his other possessions (mental faculties)? Or do you think I'm being too generous when you consider her personality?

Craig McDonald said...

I go back and forth on all of this, too. I tend to lean toward assisted suicide--tempered by the fact that she was going to be a well-off, noted widow and literary executrix of a famous author's unfinished works..

I also expect she was emotionally exhausted as his steep decline was so intense and prolonged.

Megan Abbott said...

This a great piece. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of Print the Legend, and the book is filled with even more riches.

Anonymous said...

Excellent as always.

Ellroy said somewhere (loose but accurate paraphrase) that conspiracies don't have to be actual, formal conspiracies. It is enough for powerful people or groups to have a convergence of interests that are served by an action and a cover story.

I think that hits the X-ring not only on how heinous acts are perpetrated but how they are depicted in history. EVERYONE manipulates the past to control the present and influence the future.

Jim Cornelius