Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Q&A: Craig McDonald

Craig McDonald’s series about crime novelist, crime solver, and man of the world Hector Lassiter has been lauded by critics, readers, awards committees and, not least, by yours truly. The latest installment, One True Sentence, was published last week. Craig was both kind and foolish enough to participate in a VKDC Q&A.

Q. What can you tell us about ONE TRUE SENTENCE?

It’s 1920s Paris. It stands as the first Lassiter novel, chronologically. It’s crime novelist/screenwriter Hector Lassiter at ground zero. It’s the book in which he finds his writer’s voice, his path as a genre author, and in which he meets the woman who more or less “invents” the man/character of Hector Lassiter as we’ve come to know him in the three previous novels.

Q. How do you feel the Lost Generation of expatriate American artists in 1920s France are viewed today? What fictional works depict that era best?

I think “The Lost Generation” has become almost a kind of brand that typifies a way of careless and carnal living as much as the (mostly perishable) writing produced by that generation.

As to works that catch that world, in terms of literature, I’d go with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which poses as a memoir, but which Hemingway invites readers to regard as fiction. I personally take the book as a mixture of fact and fiction — as much novel as reminiscence.

My favorite film on that era, and one that has inspired to a degree One True Sentence and the earlier Toros & Torsos, is the Alan Rudolph film The Moderns. It’s set in mid-1920s Paris, as Hemingway is between wives and The Sun Also Rises is just making its mark. It’s a mix of fictional and real characters including Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and a scathing look at art and the tension between life and the page (or canvas). It’s dark comedy punctuated with hot sex, a dreamy flavor of camera work and blurring of times, all set to a terrific, seductive score by Mark Isham.

Q. You’ve said this book wraps up a loose trilogy within the Hector Lassiter series about Hec’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway. What effect does the popular conception of Hemingway have on your treatment of him as a character? Does his larger-than-life image make it easier or more difficult to write about him? Conversely, what challenges are posed by writing about real-life figures who are lesser known to contemporary readers, like Ford Madox Ford?

I try to write Hemingway as I think he must have been — warts and all, struggling with what was probably a fatal bi-polar condition and self-medicating as best he could with writing and alcohol. I’m frankly astounded he survived into his sixties. I’m not sure how widely Hem is read these days by those under, say, age 40, and if he is, I suspect his image as a man is probably shaped by comments by partisan professors and a few lines of biography at the back of his books.

In the 1980s, particularly after his last wife died, there were scores of Hemingway biographies published; a mini-series of his life in which Stacy Keach appeared. That all kind of tapered off in the late 1990s. I don’t think a major biography of Hemingway has appeared in the past decade or so. So I think his actual personality and biography are receding in the collective unconscious again. A piece of trivia: this summer will in fact mark the 50th anniversary of Hem’s death.

In terms of writing Ford and Gertrude Stein and the like, I essentially tried to portray them in a manner consistent with Hemingway’s portraits in A Moveable Feast, and, really, as simply other characters. In that sense, One True Sentence was essentially conceived to be a crime novel recasting of Hemingway’s Feast.

Q. A recurring theme in the book is the distinction between literary and genre writing, and between types within genre (crime fiction versus mystery fiction). How seriously were such distinctions taken in the salons of 1920s Paris? What about today?

One of the first books Gertrude Stein gave an unknown Hemingway to read was the crime novel The Lodger, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Jack the Ripper novel. Stein regarded it as a mystery but of a higher level than most. Hem shared her take. Stein really was an unabashed mystery fan and called her favorite mystery writers “mystifiers.” Hemingway biographies and letters to his publisher requesting novels to be shipped to him include books by Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, among many others. Hem dug crime fiction, in his way.

The great tension of the time — then and I guess even now — was the conflict between literary and genre fiction. Hemingway was a critical darling when he was unpaid and writing for little magazines and publishing with obscure presses that printed books in runs of under 200. As soon as he signed with Scribner’s and entered the mainstream, Hem was vilified by the Left Bank literati. Going from an indie to a major house can be a real risk for an author who doesn’t quite keep a foot comfortably in either pond, and Hem took it from several nasty directions for making that change to a mainstream outlet. Paraphrasing, Hem said he aimed to be read by the low- and the high-brows. And you know, in the end, he pulled it off.

Q. What authors inspired Hector Lassiter? Are there real-world antecedents for Hec’s paramour and fellow writer Brinke Devlin?

Hector is a an amalgam of various writers including James Crumley, Jonathan Latimer (a short-lived Hemingway friend in Key West) and a couple of others I’m not quite prepared to identify yet.

And Brinke? Brinke Devlin is modeled on a real woman, but recast to resemble Louise Brooks and to write a bit like Craig Rice. Brinke is, in a sense, the female version of Hector and, as it proves out, a kind of template for Hector’s own writer’s persona. Not to say she’s his one true love, but she is the pivotal woman in his life, that simple.

Q. You wrote all eight books in the Lassiter series, of which ONE TRUE SENTENCE is the fourth, before the second was published. At what point did you realize the scale of this project? Has that scale affected the publishing process?

I wrote the first, Head Games, and figured I was done with Hector. So I wrote a standalone novel that’s scheduled to appear later this fall. After I finished that, I got the idea for Toros & Torsos and realized it required Hector as “hero.” From there, I just kept writing them until I knew I had completed Hector’s arc. The last book will bring us something like full circle, finally revealing what ever happened to Hector Lassiter. A lot of old faces will appear in that one from the first book. It really is a circle-closer.

The tricky thing is, because all the books exist, there’s a second-guessing and a re-sequencing that has happened as a result of editors coming, going and changing their minds. The first two novels followed my chosen sequence. Print the Legend, the third-published novel, was originally intended to be the next-to last book. OTS was always meant to be number three. I think we’re firmly back to my original sequence, now. The novel that should appear after One True Sentence comes right off the end of OTS. It’s also the last book written in third-person point of view. Hector narrates the last three books in the series, just as he did the very first.

Q. What Hector book will we be seeing next?

In terms of another novel, Lassiter number five is set across several holidays in 1925 Key West. It’s a love story, centrally; very character-driven. It’s also a bit of a change from the other books in that no historical figures will appear in the novel. What we get instead is the deepest, hardest look into Hector Lassiter, the man, we’ve seen. It’s also the only thing akin to a true sequel across the eight novels.

Having said all that, the next Lassiter book firmly in the pipeline is Head Games, but in graphic novel format. The artist is hard at work and putting it all down to a script of my writing. That one is coming from First Second, a division of Macmillan that also published Print the Legend and One True Sentence.

Movie Q. What’s the best cinematic adaptation of Hemingway’s work?

That may be impossible to answer in the sense they all pretty much blow. Nearly every one I’ve seen has been baaad. For Whom the Bell Tolls has some good moments and a stirring score. But Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman are too old for their roles. On the other hand, that one had the courage to use a Hemingway downbeat ending which doesn’t happen very often. Islands in the Stream is kind of interesting in that George C. Scott is essentially portraying Hemingway more than Hem’s character of Thomas Hudson. The first version of The Old Man and the Sea is mostly notable only because Hem and fourth wife Mary appear in a background scene at one point. The Killers is iconic as a film noir and the only movie based on his own work Hemingway ever really liked, but it also had to shovel on acres of material to pad out the short story upon which it is based. I know there’s a version of Garden of Eden looming, but that’s not exactly regarded as a true Hemingway novel since it was edited to a fraction of its original length by Tom Jenks.

Baseball Q. You live in Central Ohio. Reds or Indians?

Like Hector, I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. It was the Reds growing up, and I went to a game or two (Cincy is 100 miles due south of my hometown). As a kid, I sat in the stands and watched Hank Aaron phone it in at Riverfront Stadium so he could break the home run record in his next game in his native state — that further soured my attitude for the game, a bit. The only televised sport I really ever watched consistently was billiards when they’d put the old hustlers like Utley Puckett and Luther — ahem — Lassiter up against one another in the 1980s. And that, in fact, is the man who gave Hector his surname.

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

Back in the day, I went through a Glenmorangie craze; some other single malts. I got married in Scotland and sort of sampled the local fare across the Highlands for a couple of weeks. Now it would probably just be a potent and well-made margarita on the rocks, with salt. I’m no beer drinker, and I detest gin. Like Hector, I have an inexplicable but deep-seated distrust of gin drinkers.

Please note that the comments made by Mr. McDonald regarding gin and gin drinkers do not reflect the views of this website or its management. Thanks, Craig!