"SLIGHT BUT KNOWING DETACHMENT": AN INTERVIEW WITH CRAIG MCDONALD
Craig McDonald is a writer whose books I always look forward to. There is a love and knowledge of crime, pulp, and certain literary fiction he applies to his work that embraces it warts in all. You could make an argument he loves the warts the most. HIs series about Hector Lassiter a crime novelist who gets involved with major historical events, often with his friend Ernest Hemingway serve as as both punchy crime fiction as well as meditations on the writer's life. His latest. The Adventures Of Zana O'Savin: #1 The Blood Ogre uses the idea of versions of pulp heroes like Doc Savage and The Shadow coming into their own existence
The Hard Word: The Blood Ogre is an unusual book. How did it come about?
Craig McDonald: Pre-teens, I got hooked on Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Spider paperback reissues of the original pulp novels featuring these proto-superheroes. Circa the ’70s, an article in the National Enquirer claimed a sinister figure in black haunted a Gay Street building in Greenwich Village. Hans Holzer also wrote about the sightings. Turns out, Walter B. Gibson (AKA, “Maxwell Grant”) wrote the last of The Shadow novels in that building. Gibson claimed people were seeing a tulpa, or a kind of “mental projection” of The Shadow resulting from the creative intensity he exercised while writing in the structure in question.
Lester Dent (AKA, “Kenneth Robeson”) confessed to similar experiences of seeing and even interacting with his Doc Savage characters after intense, long bouts of writing. Both of these writers were cranking out what seem like impossible word counts. Dent was writing a 50- to 60-K word count Doc novel a month. Gibson somehow was achieving at least twice Dent’s output, as The Shadow was published twice-a-month for many years and Gibson was the series’ only author at the start. As a writer who’s written an historical crime fiction series about a writer and deeply dabbled in metafictional subtext, the idea of these classic pulp characters actually being willed into our reality was intoxicating, especially after wrapping up my Hector Lassiter series and looking for the next thing to write. So, to sum up, I got the idea about the age of 11 or 12, but only recently got around to finally writing the story I carried in my head for decades. A Zana O’Savin sequel, The Mothman Menace, should appear in the next couple of months. Number three is well into composition and will bring these pastiche pulp characters fully into our time period.
H.W. : What do you enjoy about the Doc Savage books?
C.M. : My grandfather gave me a copy of Doc Savage, The Land of Terror, in paperback. During the pulp run, it was the second story issued in a series that reached 181 titles. This one featured an unusually violent Doc Savage in a ghoulish revenge tale mixed with a hollow volcano containing the last of the dinosaurs. I never was into the Hardy Boys or the like. This whiplash prose from the classic pulps and Lester Dent’s breezy prose-style seized me by the scruff and never let go. As a young reader, I more or less went straight from storybooks to pulp reprints, Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett.
H.W. : What was the biggest challenge of a book like this and how did you deal with it?
C.M. The challenge? Trying to bring three-dimensional characterization to what were, frankly, rather thinly written characters—but that was standard fare for the pulps. I wanted to invest them with much more depth, yet still maintain these beloved characters—characters who directly inspired Batman and Superman—but in a recognizable form that wouldn’t alienate longtime fans. The story itself is fantastic enough, so I wanted these heroes who’ve survived for 90-plus years to be much more grounded and rounded than we’ve previously seen them. In the end, I wrote them as I would have preferred their original authors had written Doc, Pat Savage, and the Shadow on the pulp page, but did not.
H.W. : Many of your books' themes deal with writing and the writer's life and you've produced two books of interviews with crime writers Besides learning about your own craft, what makes you want ot explore the process?
C.M. : The idea of seeing other writers in action and exploring what aspects of themselves possibly inform or shape their works is very compelling to me, whether it be using Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming, or Lester Dent as “characters,” or, through my own author-protagonist, Hector Lassiter, “the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives.” I also think writing about a writer lets you really lean into more colorful dialogue and interior monologues, because professional authors tend to articulate things in ways non-writers don’t. In my experience, serious authors also tend to have trouble living in the moment because they are always a little outside themselves, consciously regarding themselves, always studying their own and others’ reactions to events and stimuli. I think that slight but knowing and other-worldly detachment can make for an interesting, sometimes unsettling, and often unpredictable character to spend time with.
H.W. : In those interviews with crime novelists, did you find any common link between them?
C.M. : Mostly just a deep stubbornness that brought them to eventual publication and in some cases, significant acclaim. Most I interviewed were very craftsman-like, but I think that probably has more to do with me having “a type.” I very consciously chose the authors I wanted to speak with for those books. I had other authors offering themselves up for interviews, sometimes in quite unseemly fashion, but they frankly weren’t writers I read or who interested me at all as authentic personalities.
H.W. :What author would you want to write a book with Craig McDonald as a character?
C.M. : Interesting! I actually am a “character” in several of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels. An author I had a very bad experience with in an interview setting (the author in question was very surly, really a jerk, and it was just an unpleasant exchange) later wrote a novel with a villain named “Craig McDonald.” I don’t have the courage of a Dick Contino to want to be fictionalized by a James Ellroy. So, I’m going to go with James Sallis because I adore his works, particularly the Lew Griffin series, and I think I’d get the most humane treatment—probably better than I deserve—from Mr. Sallis