Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Story Behind the Story:
“One True Sentence,” by Craig McDonald

(Editor’s note: A year ago, The Rap Sheet hosted Ohio journalist-author Craig McDonald’s essay about his third novel, Print the Legend. Now comes his follow-up, the post below, which looks back at the literary inspirations behind the newest of his delightful Hector Lassiter historical mysteries, One True Sentence [St. Martin’s/Minotaur].)

Although my series centers on 20th-century crime novelist and screenwriter Hector Lassiter, as many critics and readers have noted, the novels sometimes seem nearly as much about Lassiter’s longtime friend, Ernest Hemingway.

But the sun also sets: One True Sentence, the fourth novel in the Lassiter series, represents Hemingway’s last significant appearance across the projected eight-book cycle. Papa is leaving the building with this book.

In the first Lassiter installment, the largely 1957-set Head Games (2007), Hem was a kind of off-camera presence. Yet Hemingway cast such a long shadow in my debut, that considerably more than one reader or critic mistakenly left Head Games believing Hemingway to have been an actual character in the book.

In Lassiter #2, the decades-spanning Toros & Torsos (2008), Hemingway was Hector’s sidekick across years of the story’s action.

Last year brought Print the Legend, a novel turning on the possibility that Hemingway’s death in the summer of 1961 might have been something other than the suicide history records. Hemingway loomed over Print as a kind of restless ghost, and, at key points, he was seen in flashback.

Now we come to One True Sentence. In a more traditionally structured series, this novel would be a series launcher. The novel is set during one week in Paris, in February 1924.

Paris. The 1920s. We all have firm and fixed notions about how it must have been. I’m wagering that most of us have had those notions set for us by at least some of the writings of Ernest Hemingway.

As One True Sentence opens, Hector Lassiter and Ernest Hemingway are in their early 20s. They’ve each had some short stories printed, but neither has yet published--hell, even completed drafting--a proper novel. It’s the youngest we’ll ever see Hector and Hem in the Lassiter series.

Already, the questions are coming my way again from early One True Sentence interviewers and newcomers to the books: Why Hemingway?

Partly it’s because I intended the Lassiter series to be as much about key artistic movements--modernism, surrealism, post-modernism, and so on--as about solving mysteries. Hemingway was a key figure who straddled or helped to define all those -isms.

Blame it, too, on my overlapping reads, as a young man, of The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. Mostly the latter.

From biographies and letters, I see now how contrived or even disingenuous much of Hemingway’s posthumous memoir truly is. Doesn’t matter. I’m a trust-the-art, not-the-artist kind of guy. I was seduced, early and powerfully, by Hemingway’s portrayal of what it was like to be a young journalist and aspiring fiction writer in Paris in the 1920s; the place, Gertrude Stein famously said, “Where the 20th century was.”

As a new-fledged journalist drafting novels in the evening and on weekends--albeit doing all that writing in Ohio--my life was changed by A Moveable Feast. I wanted to live that book. Hemingway became my master and kind of the literary equivalent of what Elvis represents to rockers--the goal and the cautionary example.

Knowing I couldn’t really live Hem’s memoir, I promised myself to write my own Paris novel that I could live in--to put my own vision of the City of Lights on the page. The question was what would that novel be about? Who would anchor that book? Years passed.

Between January 2005 and December 2007, as a fiction writer, I had what Hemingway used to term “a belle époque.” I wrote most of the Lassiter series, as well as a standalone that’s scheduled to see print later this year, and the non-fiction book, Rogue Males (2009). The pages were piling up. Simultaneously, I was re-reading a lot of Hemingway. I came back to A Moveable Feast with a grown man’s eyes.

I wrote Toros & Torsos between Halloween and Christmas of 2006. On January 1 of the next year, I began to write One True Sentence (then traveling under the working title of City of Lights). My own 1920s Paris novel was unfolding in my head even as I was in the early going of composing Toros.

From the jump, One True Sentence was envisioned to be a noir turn on A Moveable Feast and a kind of post-modern dark comedy about the mystery genre itself.

As Dick Adler wrote in a January post here in The Rap Sheet (“Hem and Gert Talk Mysteries”), Gertrude Stein was an unabashed mystery fan. She called her favorite mystery writers her “mystifiers.” In an early meeting, Stein urged on a young Hemingway a copy of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Jack the Ripper tale, The Lodger (1913).

I envisioned a series of murders of literary magazine editors along both banks of the Seine--crimes that would hit a commercially inviable writer like Gertrude Stein where she lived. In desperation, Stein--fixed in the Nero Wolfe-like comfort of her favorite chair in her salon--gathers to her a collection of Paris-dwelling mystery writers to stop the killings.

The detectives in One True Sentence include an Agatha Christie-esque British writer of locked-room mysteries who has long been established as Hector’s bête noire. We meet a fetching American female mystery writer named Brinke Devlin, who looks like Louise Brooks and writes like Craig Rice. Representing the hard-boiled school, we have Hector (and, in his way, Hemingway). Bouncing up against this collection of unlikely amateur detectives is a Maigret-like French inspector.

As One True Sentence unfolds, we meet characters and witness events that will inform the early novels of Hector Lassiter and Ernest Hemingway. We’re witnesses to a secret history of events living between the lines of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. We’re afforded a glimpse of the portion of the iceberg lurking below the water line, to put it in Hemingway’s own artistic terms.

For Hemingway, particularly, February 1924 was a kind of pivotal moment in time. Intimations of a tipping point being reached for the young writer were just being felt.

Hem was back in Paris after a disastrous return to daily journalism in Toronto, Canada. He came back with one small-press collection of his writings behind him, and another pending in the fall. He became a subeditor to Ford Maddox Ford’s literary magazine, The Transatlantic Review--a plot point in One True Sentence. Despite no novel to support it, Hem’s reputation as a fiction writer to watch was beginning to spread.

All of the key literary and artistic figures who appear in One True Sentence were actually in Paris during that winter--crowding in some last good food and wine before abandoning the city to an expected influx of tourists anticipating Paris’ role as host city to the Summer Olympics.

And then there were the suicides.

Paris always had its share of men and women intent upon killing themselves. The always-suicide-preoccupied Hemingway even wrote an early, undistinguished poem about all that.

Yet as the winter of 1924 unfolded in a haze of snow and freezing rain, the suicide rate in Paris spiked, particularly in artistic circles.

Hand-wringing journalists and the like blamed the young artistic community for the spate of self-inflicted deaths (“Terror Sweeps Latin Quarter” one 1924 French headline read). All those deaths suggested to me the key plot point for One True Sentence. They inspired a Dada-like artistic clique called “Nada”--a dark cult embracing murder and suicide.

This, then, is the milieu of One True Sentence: A single week in Paris in all of its winter 1924 glory. Murder, sex, and all those great writers and painters colliding, many of them treacherously bent upon screwing one another in something other than a carnal sense.

It’s Hector Lassiter and Ernest Hemingway at ground zero. It’s the key romance in Hector’s life with the woman who makes Hector, well, Hector.

It seems appropriate that Papa should have the last word on the time and the place: “But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

* * *

FREE BOOKS, ANYONE?: One True Sentence goes on sale today, but thanks to Minotaur Books, you could win one of four free copies of Craig McDonald’s new novel. To enter this latest Rap Sheet giveaway competition, all you have to do is e-mail your name and snail-mail address to jpwrites@wordcuts.org. And please be sure to write “Craig McDonald Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Monday, February 21.

Winners will be chosen completely at random, and their names listed on this page the following day.


Naomi Johnson said...

This has whetted my appetite -- like I needed it. Been waiting a long while for this one.

David Rich said...

Far more to the book than that; One of Hemingway's most famous quotes is the lynch pin for the book: Our nada who art in heaven, nada be thy name. Amazingly no one has mentioned that...