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Playing Head Games with CRAIG McDONALD

Written by Tony Black

 

 
CRAIG MCDONALD TALKS TO TONY BLACK

 

AMERICAN first-time novelist Craig McDonald's head is in a spin.

After scooping a recent Edgar nomination for his debut work, Head Games, the journalist turned novelist is having to contend with some high-level praise.
The book in question is a pedal-to-the-metal road novel with more twists and turns than Brands Hatch, so perhaps he should have seen it coming. Instead, he modestly states he is ''humbled'' and finds the book's reception to be completely unexpected.

Not so Irish crime writing genius Ken Bruen, who as one of the novel's first readers declared himself to be ''beyond impressed''.Then there was James Sallis who said Head Games was "smart...funny...[and] moves like a roach when the lights go on".

Even the Chicago Tribune declared the book ''one of the most unusual, and readable, crime-fiction releases to come along in years. An exceptional debut".

So, who is Craig McDonald and what does he have to say about Head Games?


TONY BLACK: Firstly, congratulations on your recent Edgar nomination ... that must’ve been quite a buzz? 

CRAIG MCDONALD:  Humbling, thrilling…completely unexpected. There are no two ways around it: it’s a quirky novel and one that has frustrated my best efforts to try and distill down to a sound-byte. I’m just thrilled people are “getting” it. And very thrilled that at least one Edgar judge got it. 

It must be mind-blowing to see how well received your first novel has been. 

Again, it doesn’t fit many molds and maybe that explains some of the appeal it’s had for some key reviewers and independent booksellers, particularly, who I’m eternally grateful to for having gotten behind the book to push it. It’s definitely become a word-of-mouth novel. I’m over the moon at the critical reaction. 

Quite a few big names have got behind Head Games, what do you think it is about the novel that has them waxing lyrical? 

One of the great thrills in this whole experience has been to have writers I’ve admired for years, interviewed, and whose works I’ve studied with some real intensity, read my novel and then care enough to blurb the book…James Crumley, James Sallis, Laura Lippman and Charlie Stella. Ken Bruen, who provided the first blurb, was also the first to read Head Games…actually getting a look at it ahead of my agent. And James Sallis — his Lew Griffin series is probably the most profound influence on the Lassiter books…something that may become more apparent as subsequent novels appear. In terms of the blurbing authors’ reactions, the things they’ve cited have been its characterization, pace, the humor and the stuff going on under the surface…Beyond that, all I can say is that crime writers are, on balance, extraordinarily generous with their time and have a real interest in lending support to new writers. 

Head Games isn’t your usual crime novel is it? 

Honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d even written a crime novel, and didn’t think of it as a mystery novel either. Some have called it a “noir novel,” though I wouldn’t go that far. If I could be said to have an aim in terms of what I was going for, it would probably be something in the vicinity of a darkly humorous Tex-Mex myth. I wanted something that moved like a country ballad. And in fact the book was written to a steady soundtrack of Tom Russell and Andrew Hardin acoustic guitar CDs. Hence the dedication. 

Did you consciously want to write something different to everything else on the market at present? 

As you know, “debut” novel isn’t synonymous with “first” novel. I’ve got some manuscripts that are closer to traditional crime fiction “market” books. One of those is a novel about illegal immigration and its effect on a small Ohio town as seen through the eyes of three lawmen, a small-town reporter and his Latina girlfriend that I’d love to get out there. But Head Games happens to be the book that sold first. 

That said, I spent several years reviewing crime and mystery fiction, but drifted away from that over the past couple of years, not just because my own fiction-writing career was gaining traction, but because I found fewer and fewer things to be surprised by or to enjoy. I really can’t read police procedurals anymore. I’ve had problems with the licensed P.I. novel for at least a decade. There’s a lot of very good writing to be found in genre now, but many of the plots and the stories seem a bit too familiar and so nullify the depth of characterization and quality of writing…at least for me. I remember driving around Phoenix with James Sallis a few years ago, who I flew out to Arizona to interview along with Ken Bruen. I confided to Jim this growing frustration with the crime novels coming my way for review. At that time, I was about halfway through writing Head Games, so there probably is a good case to be made for that novel having come out of that growing frustration with much of the market. 

Did you have any trouble shopping Head Games around to publishers? 

My publisher, Ben LeRoy, was quoted somewhere as saying that the book had been shopped to all the majors and turned down. Actually, I have a book that probably could be said about, but Head Games really only went out to maybe six or seven publishers, a couple of which never got back to my agent. In fact, Ben said the book sat on his desk for a year before my agent finally drove him to read it. He made an offer very soon after. 

Head Games is set in the 1950s, what attracted you to this era? 

I wanted to write a novel that took a hard look at a certain kind of masculinity that has, for better or worse, kind of passed from the scene. I wanted to look at the cost of acquiring, maintaining, and ultimately, losing a grip on that kind of masculinity. To find the last of those kinds of men, I really had to cast back to that time period. 

I also grew up in the 1960s, and much of the 1950s culture — the furniture, the great old cars and the music — were still around. I feel more of a kinship to that time in a way. And being born in the early 1960s, I really got screwed when I came of driving age…American cars sucked after the late sixties. 

A number of notable characters from the time appear, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich — and there are numerous references to Ernest Hemingway — did you have any fears about reincarnating these icons? 

Only in the sense of getting them down on the page in a convincing manner. I went into this with an arc planned for the character of Hector Lassiter, and, like Sallis’ Lew Griffin series, went in with a notion of a finite number of books — seven — the last of which I’m finishing now. Welles is in the next novel, on the set of The Lady From Shanghai. Hemingway, who casts a long shadow across Head Games, is a major character in the next book, which will depict the arc of the Hemingway/Lassiter friendship from 1935 through Hemingway’s death in 1961. The third novel, set in Paris in one week in 1924, will study their friendship when both were largely unknowns. 

We share an appreciation of the work of Papa, what’s the attraction to the work of Hemingway for you? 

The way in which he freed the language from the ornate, dense, dead prose that was the norm before he made the scene. The fact that, at least in the early going, he came to the task of writing with such focus and dedication and a drive to distill things down in such a spare, yet potent and evocative way. And he fought to use words and language that people used everywhere but in the fiction of the time. 

Which of his works would you most like to have written? 

A number of the short stories. In terms of the novels, I think my favorite is The Sun Also Rises, although A Farewell to Arms is technically a better novel. And I loved the memoir, A Moveable Feast. In fact, the third Lassiter novel, City of Lights, is essentially A Moveable Feast recast as a crime novel. 

Did A Moveable Feast put you off Fitzgerald? 

Not at all. I have to confess up front, I’ve read more about Fitzgerald than by him, probably. I read the key novels, some short stories, but many more biographies and excerpts from his notebooks, and so forth. According to people who knew Fitzgerald at the time depicted in Feast (the early 1920s), Hemingway’s sketches, while mean, were essentially accurate, at least in terms of Scott’s character. Whether the stuff about F. Scott’s plumbing and the statues in the museum is made up or not, well, the two guys who would know are long dead. 

Do you think Hemingway was jealous of F. Scott? 

Probably from the gate, yes. But he eclipsed F. Scott pretty quickly, and towards the end of Scott’s life, Fitzgerald was almost out of print and Gatsby still wasn’t regarded as an important novel. You can see the arc of the friendship, if that word even applies, in their letters. Hem moves pretty quickly from gratitude to Scott for helping link him to Scribner, to the status of equal, and within three or four years, Hem is telling Scott what he needs to do to write, to write better…to write at all. 

Gatsby is often cited as The Great American Classic ... do you think it's a crime novel? 

I do. I claim a number of novels and authors as crime writers. Nearly all that Flannery O’Connor wrote can be regarded as crime fiction, and she’s probably the first great female noir writer. Nathaniel West’s stuff is as close to crime fiction as anything Daniel Woodrell writes. And several of Hemingway’s short stories and, in most ways, To Have and Have Not, qualifies to my mind. 

Do you think you would have liked him as a man? 

Hemingway was a “trust the art, not the artist” kind of guy. If you didn’t make your living with words, you probably could get along fine with him. As soon as writing entered the picture, well, he tended to grind through writer friends pretty viciously. And he was clearly suffering from a depression that runs through the family. He was at his best in the 1920s and early 1930s. By the mid-1930s, the genetic load started to take him apart. I’ve interviewed a few who knew him closer to the end…George Plimpton, who I spent an afternoon with in the 1980s, when The Garden of Eden was published, and Valerie Hemingway, who was in Spain during his last trip and who married Hem’s son, Gregory. The sense I got from them was the real plunge that led to the Mayo Clinic and his death was pretty precipitous, although he went through terrible depressions for many years prior to his death. 

Did they reveal anything else about Hemingway that stuck with you? 

Mostly how quiet and polite he was. One-on-one, even late in life, he dropped the “Papa” persona he fashioned for himself and tended to front in crowd scenes, and basically impressed them as an intellectual, interesting guy…a good listener and a kind of natural and enthusiastic teacher. 

Your main character Hector Lassiter is a larger-than-life pulp writer, and shares some of Hemingway’s traits doesn’t he? 

He’s a composite of Hemingway and crime novelist Jonathan Latimer — who knew Hemingway in Key West and had a falling out with him — as well as some other pulp novelists from the old days, including Mike Shayne’s creator, who lied about his age to chase Villa as Lassiter did. 

There was one pulp novelist Hemingway notoriously didn't get on with, Mickey Spillane, what do you think that was all about? 

I’ve seen remarks Mickey made about some disparaging article or piece Hemingway supposedly wrote about him. But I’ve read everything of Hemingway’s I can find, including his high school journalism, and I’ve never come across anything at all like Mickey described. The closest thing I’ve found to a Hemingway remark is a passing aside about Mickey in a letter Hem wrote to A.E. Hotchner that appears in a book that was only published last year. I kind of wonder if this supposed Hem broadside against Mickey is maybe apocryphal. 

Do you like Spillane's work? 

I’ve enjoyed the few I’ve read — all of it early stuff. He takes a certain amount of hits — back then and even now — for being a bestseller, but there should be no shame in connecting with a readership and selling books. He called his readers customers…a part of me gets that attitude, and likes him more for it. 

Lassiter states in Head Games that a successful writer can be confused with his character — is there any Craig McDonald in Hector Lassiter? 

It’s clear from some of the correspondence I’ve received a few tend or want to think that there’s not much distance between Lassiter and me. Some people I’ve known for some time prior to the publication of the novel seem to be looking for similarities now. In the latter books, where I’m writing him younger, there probably is a bit more of me in him, but not so much in Head Games…he’s got more than a decade on me in that book and a lot of vices I never picked up.  

What is Craig McDonald's greatest vice? 

I’m pretty much a lay-low, stay-at-home guy with a couple of young daughters. Between family, newspaper work, and fiction writing in the time I can find, there’s not room for much good vice. Writing would be as close as I come. In the past few years, I’ve been averaging two to three novel-length manuscripts a year, and probably three or four short stories between the books. I’ve concluded I may well have graphomania. 

I’ve heard you say Lassiter grew from several meetings with old veterans, have any commented back to you on what they think of him? 

Well, they’re all dead now. There was guy in my hometown who was part of the Pershing Expedition…actually two of them. I got a lot of color and background from them and they’re actually named in the novel. One had some albums of photos from the Expedition I spent some time with. Oddly enough, I was doing a Google news search a month or two ago and found that there’s still one guy from the Pershing Expedition living here not far from me…he’s well over 100-years-old. So in a sense, all this stuff still isn’t that long ago… 

Lassiter has a taste for Scottish malt whisky, Talisker to be precise, have you made this discovery yourself? 

My wife and me were married in Scotland and spent our honeymoon driving around the Highlands. A guy in a pub in Glasgow our last night there turned me onto Talisker. My single malt of choice left to my own devices prior to that night seemed to be Glenmorangie. Double drams. 

You have Scottish roots, have you researched them? 

We spent some time on Skye, at the Clan Donald Center but couldn’t push much back beyond the early 1800s. The forbearers moved onto Ireland — County Antrim specifically — before moving onto Pennsylvania…pretty much arriving just in time for the Civil War. 

Do you think you have any Scottish traits? 

John Prebble, despite being English, wrote some very good books about Scottish history…about Culloden, Glencoe and the Clearances. He had a line about the MacDonalds: “A people of long memories and short tempers.” I connect with that pretty strongly. I have a real tendency to carry a grudge…usually with intent. Is revenge a vice? 

What about Scottish writers, are there any you admire? 

I’m pretty current with Scottish crime writers and have sampled at least a few books, if not all, of the present crop, including this author named Tony Black. Allan Guthrie was actually my editor for Art in the Blood. A few years ago, I went through a period of reading everything by Duncan McLean I could get my hands on, including his book on Western Swing and the very twisted Bunker Man. 

I'm a huge Duncan McLean fan myself, Bunker Man is as dark a book as I've ever read. I hear he's been running a wine business for the last few years but is, thankfully, now going back to writing. I can't wait. 

I’m glad to hear he’s back. I had wondered what happened. His stuff was everywhere here, and then just gone. 

One of the areas of the book that gripped me was the Skull and Bones references, did you do any research on this shady outfit? 

A fair amount, mostly in terms of the rituals and what I could learn about the layout of the Tomb and some of the “relics” they’re said to have collected. If you believe the stories, in addition to Villa’s head, there are allegations of them having also collected the head of a U.S. president, Che Guevara’s hands, and Geronimo’s skull. 

What’s your final assessment of Skull and Bones, childish ritual amusement or something more nefarious? 

I don’t think the members of S&B regard it as less than fairly serious, although you can find some YouTube footage of George W. speaking with some amusement about Skull and Bones. The fact remains, their members tend to be movers and shakers, and in 2004, you had two Bonesmen running for President in Kerry and Bush. They only “tap” about 15 new pledges a year, so if you look at the math, the notion of two members of that fraternity both rising to Presidential general election-prospects in the same year… Well, it’s an eyebrow raiser. 

Did you ever catch Alex Jones’s infiltration of Bohemian Grove? 

Afraid not…but I’ll look it up now. 

A good old journalistic 'beat-up', but worth it for its entertainment value. You’re also a journalist and you’ve interviewed some interesting writers yourself, who sticks out? 

Ellroy has been a good subject because he’s tended to open up to me in a different way than with most interviewers. I think that might be because I made it clear up front the first time how deep my reading of his novels goes and I never quizzed him about his mother’s murder, a subject he’s tired to death of. Crumley was great to interview…Really, most of the crime writers I’ve interviewed have been terrific and very forthcoming. The only exception might be a certain author of a cat mystery series who I agreed to interview to my own continuing surprise. I read two of her cat novels. The interview was a kind of train wreck and one of the few I never fully transcribed. I don’t even think I have the tape anymore. At one point, she began answering my questions in the persona of her cat. 

You're kidding ... 

Not all. It makes for a good story now, but in the moment, it was fairly skin-crawling. After this monologue by the “cat” went on a bit, I asked that the “cat” put her friend “x” back on the line. The interview pretty much went even further downhill from there… 

Are there any authors you’d still like to get to? 

I’ve kind of burned myself out on interviewing, probably because I tended to overdo my research and reading in preparation. It became so time-consuming that I couldn’t possibly do it to that level with my other present commitments. And I really think I got to just about everyone I’d want to have a pass at. 

So, no more interviews ... ever? 

I really don’t think so. To do it at the level I used to would represent a substantial time commitment and time is at a premium now. In the past couple of years, my reading in genre has also dropped off a good bit, so I’m not even current with a number of previously interviewed authors’ series anymore. 

What writers have had the greatest influence on your own work? 

Hemingway. Probably Lester Dent because my grandfather used to get me Bantam reprints of the Doc Savage pulps as they appeared. I read the entire run of the series in reprint. His basement was full of old Gold Medals and crime novels…Richard S. Prather, Marlowe, and Nick Carters. Hemingway is probably my most profound influence. After that I’d have to say Ellroy, Crumley and Sallis. I remember being very captivated by William Lindsay Gresham at one point. I’d probably have to cite Cornell Woolrich above Chandler and Hammett as an influence. I read Chandler and Hammett in college and drifted away from them pretty quickly, but stayed with Woolrich. 

What’s your impression of the writing biz now you’ve seen it from the other side of the fence? 

It certainly has its dysfunctional aspects, but so does every business. I think one thing I’m grateful for is having several manuscripts in reserve that are, I think, equal to or better than Head Games. I think it would have been very tough if Head Games had sold, gone to print, and I was then trying to write the sophomore novel in the midst of everything attendant with a debut novel’s publication…the matter of facing up to reviews, engaging in promotional responsibilities and so forth. 

What are the 'dysfunctional aspects' that you find most troubling? 

The drive to replicate success and to clone other authors, but that’s not a particularly new phenomenon. Worse than that, is BookScan and all of the acquiring editors and chain stores in thrall to the damned thing. Anyone who cares about crime and mystery fiction has to rue its deleterious effect on midlist and new authors, as well as the kinds of books being written presently by the old guard. It’s no coincidence more veteran writers are turning to thrillers and standalones these days. As I was winding down my interviewing career, the last couple of authors I spoke with were both very eager to put out short story collections, but they were facing the prospect of having to do so with small or independent publishers or in limited edition formats for fear that BookScan would pick up the lower sales figures that could be expected from a volume of short stories, and then apply those numbers against future orders for subsequent novels. Publishing short stories collections, under the current business model, in essence, could have resulted in those bestselling authors harming their own sales standings, perhaps beyond recovery. 

What’s the next novel going to be called and can you give us a bit of a taste of what it’s about? 

Toros & Torsos. It’ll be out in fall 2008. This one has Lassiter in his prime, engaging a cabal of surrealist painters, photographers and art collectors. As I said, Hemingway is a major character in this one, kind of filling the Bud Fiske role as a primary sidekick. The novel takes its cues from some recent nonfiction books that have mounted an argument that the murder of Elizabeth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia, was inspired by surrealist imagery and may in fact have been committed by person or persons tied to the surrealist crowd in post-war Hollywood…a circle that included people like Man Ray, Salvador Dali, John Huston and even Fanny Brice. 

This one opens in 1935 in Key West on Labor Day weekend as a killer hurricane was bearing down on the Florida Keys. It then moves through the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Hollywood in January, 1947, and then to Cuba in January, 1959 as Castro was just seizing power. This one is about a third longer than Head Games…in fact, the longest of the Lassiter novels. I’ve also written a script for a graphic novel of Head Games to be published by First Second. The artist search is on now, and I’m beginning to see some character sketches from potential illustrators. 

Dali had some well-documented issues ... will any of them surface? And what about Gala, is there a role for her? 

Dali has a few quiet walk-ons, as do some other key surrealists, but his role in the book is fairly muted. Where he comes in the strongest, is in terms of some of his paintings, and the rather unsettling correspondences to be found in a particular unsolved Los Angeles murder that was committed in 1947. The bizarre similarities between things to be found in morgue photos related to that 1947 murder, and a couple of Dali’s then-decades-old paintings, are deeply unsettling, even stomach-churning, but fairly hard to deny. 

And what about the journalism and non-fiction, will that continue? 

I’m still a working journalist. As to nonfiction, there is one more interview book to come called Rogue Males that Bleak House will publish at some point. It was to come out this year, but after the Edgar nomination, I think the imperative to get out the second novel overtook that book, pushing it back a bit. After Rogue Males, however, I’m pretty much done with writing nonfiction books. It’s much more gratifying to make things up.

 

 

   
 

 

Visit Craig’s website for more information

 

 

TONYBLACK's first novel PAYING FOR IT is published by Random House in July. Allan Guthrie, called it ‘a fine debut’ adding: "Black is the new noir". He lives and works in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. More of his fiction can be found at Thug Lit, Pulp Pusher, Demolition and in Out of the Gutter. Find him at: www.tonyblack.net

 

 

 

 

   
   


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Craig McDonald



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