Saturday, February 13, 2010
A few years back I came across Craig McDonald's "Head Games", the first Hector Lassiter novel and immediately fell in love with it. Toros & Torsos, his 2nd novel was even better. Then I got to talking to Craig on Crimepace and was right away overcome by his generosity and willingness to answer my questions. Then I came across Craig's books "ART IN THE BLOOD" & "ROGUE MALES", a series of interviews with today's top mystery writers. This was great stuff ! I believe Craig to be as good it gets when it comes to the art of the interview today. Eventually, I was able to meet Craig & his lovely wife Debbie at this years Bouchercon in Indianapolis. It was there that I found out what I already knew, Craig is a wonderful guy on top of being a great writer. He took me under his wing and I am eternally grateful. The following is a recent interview that Craig was gracious enough to grant someone far below his expertise. So, we begin with Mr. Craig McDonald.
Would you rather gain a reputation as a great writer or a great interviewer?
(A) Great writer, definitely. The author interviewing is behind me, now. I did a few interviews last year, but they were last, special cases. There are such demands on my time, there’s simply no room or desire to do that, anymore. You can burn yourself out interviewing authors if you really throw yourself into the task, and I did just that, for many years.
2) What was your most memorable concert experience and your favorite concert?
(A) Most memorable? Probably a Tom Russell concert last year. He did an on-stage riff about me, about HEAD GAMES and Pancho Villa, about ROGUE MALES…then he dedicated his song “Stealing Electricity” to me. Favorite concert? I saw Kris Kristofferson perform an amazing couple of sets in the mid-1980s in a roadhouse in a remote part of Ohio. Perfect set selections…all those classic songs he wrote in Nashville as an unknown… A perfect night.
3) If you could sit down to dinner with one person (living or deceased) to pick their brain. Who & Why?
(A) Joseph Campbell, I think. I was heavily influenced by his work, even before the Bill Moyer’s interviews made him a public guru. I feel I could still learn much from him about narrative form and symbolism…about the stuff the unconscious part of your brain somehow invests in a work of fiction.
4) When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer & what writers have had the most influence on your writing?
(A) I was trying to write fiction at the age of nine. I tried to write a crime novel while riding in the back of a car for a weekend trip to Lake Erie. As to fiction influences, I think the ones that matter most come earliest. So Lester Dent, Ian Fleming, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and Ernest Hemingway. The only living, contemporary novelist I can say deeply influenced me as a mature fiction writer is James Sallis. Without the inspiration of his Lew Griffin series, there would be no Hector Lassiter series.
5) I know you’re a huge music fan & that you listen to music while your writing. Who do you listen to & do you use it to set scenery, feel or place in time?
(A) I tend to pick a singer or songwriter to set a sustained tone or mood for a book and then stay with that artist through a particular project. HEAD GAMES was written to Tom Russell. TOROS & TORSOS was written to a lot of old torch songs and period music, but mostly to Bryan Ferry’s cover of “Where or When,” which I listened to some insane number of times while writing that book.
6) In the Hector Lassiter novels, Hector is close friends with Hemingway, Orson Welles & Marlene Dietrich. Were these 3 favorites of yours while growing up?
(A) Hemingway very much so. Orson Welles tends to fascinate me more than being a favorite. In some ways, Welles seems to have been a fairly deplorable human being. As it often is, in his case, it’s the “trust the art not the artist” conundrum. Marlene worked her way into the series only because of my desire to incorporate the filming of TOUCH OF EVIL into HEAD GAMES. I listened to a CD of her singing while writing those slivers of HEAD GAMES in which she appears. Other than TOUCH OF EVIL, I don’t think I’ve made it through another Dietrich film in its entirety.
7) Head Games will soon be published as a graphic novel. Are you a fan of that genre & if so whose work has caught your eye?
(A) I admire the form very much. As to the ones I most admire, and these are fairly obvious masterworks, Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and Alan Moore’s WATCHMAN are both sublime. FROM HELL also impressed me very much.
8) How much of you is in Hector or how much of Hector is in you?
(A) I guess all of Hector is in me because I wrote him…or perhaps “channeled him” would be more accurate. Having said that, if it’s not a paradox, maybe about half of me is in Hector. He started out as a composite of some other people.
9) What are some TV series that you'd highly recommend?
(A) Not much on currently really works for me other than SUPERNATURAL and MAD MEN. The ones that got away would include THE ROCKFORD FILES; MAVERICK (the ones with James Garner); REILLY, ACE OF SPIES; DEADWOOD and the Jeremy Brett SHERLOCK HOLMES TV series.
10) No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood?
(A) No question, NO COUNTRY. I was an early and enthusiastic reviewer of the original novel. The book’s better than the movie, but the movie was very strong.
11) I know you’re a big Tom Russell fan, Tom’s a singer, songwriter, writer & painter. Do you dabble in any other art forms yourself?
(A) I took a lot of art classes in my youth and thought I might actually go that way. Tried my hand at songwriting during college. I’m much more effective, I think, as a novelist. That said, I did dabble in painting for some reason while writing HEAD GAMES. I’ve got some canvases around of some characters and pieces tied to that book.
12) What films do you think did justice to, or exceeded the book?
(A) Hitchcock’s PSYCHO is definitely better than Bloch’s original. I think NIGHT OF THE HUNTER did a very striking job of catching Davis Grubb’s novel. I have to say I far prefer Huston’s FALCON to Hammett’s original.
13) Directors to me are similar to authors and songwriters in that they all tell stories in their own way & own format. Are there any directors whose work you follow on a regular basis?
(A) I agree with you up to a point. Film is a collaborative medium and I think collaboration tends to have an inherent bias toward missing the artistic mark more often than not. I don’t understand how novelists can collaborate on books in that sense. I don’t fathom why one novelist would try to write with another. But there are some cinematic auteur's like Welles who come about as close as one person can to stamping a collaborative work with what seems like a monolithic vision. So, Welles is in that weight class…I loved Alan Rudolph’s 1980s works, particularly THE MODERNS and TROUBLE IN MIND…the little seen SONGWRITER. Film has kind of fallen away for me in recent years and I’m not really inspired by cinema. I think I’ve seen maybe only a dozen films in a theater in the last five years. On the other hand, my next novel is very much tied to German expressionist cinema and its influence over film noir. That novel is called ROLL THE CREDITS and will be out about a year from now.
14) The life of a writer can be a pretty solitary one, do you enjoy those quiet times the most or do you prefer getting out on the book tours and author events?
(A) Writing is soulful; promotion is anything but. It’s great to trade emails or letters with readers, and to meet them one-on-one, but I’m no natural or happy public speaker. It’s strange to ask a writer — someone who pretty much lives in their head — to be an orator or entertainer.
15) What musicians could you not live without & can you give us one that we not have heard of but should?
(A) Tom Russell, Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury are crucial songwriters for me. All three are very novelistic and Kristofferson, in the early days, was writing music influenced by Blake and Yeats and their poetic structures. Someone you may not know? I loved Melissa McClelland’s THUMBELINA’S ONE NIGHT STAND and played it over and over while writing a not-yet-published Hector Lassiter novel about Paris in 1924.
16) Are there any new authors out there who we may have missed but should seek out?
(A) I can now admit that I served on this year’s Hammett Awards Committee, so my 2009 into early 2010 reading was pretty much dominated by that task. I read maybe five books I wanted to read for my own reasons last year and they were tough to squeeze in…I had to turn down several requests for blurbs because I simply couldn’t spare the time. It was a huge task vetting all these awards submissions. I read or sampled something like 300 crime and mystery novels as a committee member and a number of those were 2009 debuts. The first novel of 2009 that most impressed me, and which made the final cut for the Hammett nominations, was Jedediah Berry’s THE MANUAL OF DETECTION. It’s unlike anything else written last year…it’s quirky, fresh and very true to its own strange vision. I love that in a crime novel.
17) Jazz or folk....Werner Herzog or Coen Bros?
(A) Folk, for certain. Me and Jazz aren’t happy together… I’d have to go with the C. Brothers over Herzog, though it runs pretty hot and cold, movie to movie, so far as the brothers go.
18) I just finished Robert Jackson Bennett's debut novel "Mr. Shivers" ( I LOVED IT), & I thought of you due to its subject matter " the great depression & hobo's". Do you think you'll ever write something yourself that involves the Hobo world ?
(A) I don’t think so, but never say never. Outside of Hector’s world, my other historical stuff in the trunk tends to predate the Depression era… Well, now that I think more on it, the first (and still unpublished) novel I ever wrote is based on the Cleveland Torso Slayings, which had a definite hobo element, but I came at the crimes through a late-1980s’ prism (which was when I wrote the book).
19) Obviously you did a lot of research for "Toros & Torsos" into the surrealist art movement. Are you a fan of surrealist art or any of Man Rays pieces?
(A) Quite the opposite. Even as a young art student, I found surrealism to be a pretty disturbing genre for self-expression. I tend to loathe the surrealists and find, as is stated by various characters in TOROS, that the surrealists were a very misogynistic, messed up bunch. I think a couple of them were potentially—or actually—homicidal. One lesser aim in TOROS was not to glorify the surrealists, but to indict them.
FINAL QUESTION: There are 2 types of people in the world (givers & takers)...I’ve found the mystery book world to be filled with givers, just incredibly helpful & nice people. Has this been your experience as well?
(A) I agree with you a hundred percent. It’s a world and a scene that’s very inclusive, very collegial at all levels. As always, there are those exceptions, but they are, thank God, very rare exceptions. You can’t ask for better companions, friends or mentors than those you find in our segment of the literary world.
Posted by Rod Norman at 9:26 AM