Interview w/ Craig McDonald

Craig McDonald
Interview by emails in 2010
(There was a change in the publishing schedule of the Hector Lassiter series since this interview; One True Sentence is actually the 4th book published -in February 2011- instead of Roll the Credits which has not been released yet).

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire" --W. B. Yeats

## You've studied in Ohio and still live in Columbus at the moment, right? Is that where you grew up too or are you from elsewhere?

C.M.--I'm a native of central Ohio, which is the state capital. My hometown is a place called Grove City, which is the nearest suburb to Columbus. It was a town with two racetracks, a lot of pizza places and barbershops. A very solid, Midwest small town back then. It's a bit more gentrified, these days. Presently I live east of Columbus, close by the Old National Trail.

## I've read that your interest for crime fiction started because of your grandfather. You dedicated a book (Head Games I think it was) to him. Did he get to read any of your novels, was he aware that you were pursuing a writer's career?

C.M.--I was quietly trying my hand at writing here and there, but the closest my grandfather came to reading anything of mine was stuff I wrote as editor of my high school newspaper. He died when I was 18, about my second quarter of college. One of my great regrets is that he didn't live to see a novel, and particularly Head Games, which was dedicated to his memory, and on which he left a lot of fingerprints in terms of setting, character and attitude.

## Who were the first writers that inspired you enough to try your hand at writing? And what's one of your best memories of reading a book?

C.M.--I was always a reader...always had one or more books going. I think the turning point for me, really, was a paperback reprint of the Lester Dent (writing as Kenneth Robeson) Doc Savage novel, The Land of Terror. It was pure pulp-lit, it moved like lightning and engaged me on a level as no other book had to that time. I was, I think, 8. I remember the weather was cold, and I sat on the floor with my back to a wall register...sucking up the heat and that first-season furnace smell of charred dust in the heating ducts. But I was just lost in that crazy book. After that, I kept chasing the Bantam reprints of Doc Savage pulp magazines, of the Shadow. I completely skipped the Hardy Boys and the usual kids-level series.

## Apparently, you wrote a story when you were nine and your teacher didn't really like it. Did you think: "Hey, I got a reaction from my story, this is great. I gotta write more of them!"

C.M.--Actually, I was fairly discouraged by it. It was a lurid little tale involving Jack the Ripper. We were supposed to write something in a Halloween vein. I'd just read this article about the Whitechapel murders in a copy of Reader's Digest I found in my granddad's basement. So I set this decapitation murder on the street where my aunt lived in my hometown. It caused...concerns. That said, my first published novel involves decapitated heads, so maybe I don't evolve much.

## You studied journalism and English in Ohio, in the early '80s. The after-effects of the Kent State shootings of May 1970 must have been still palpable on campuses. How did it affect student life in general and yours in particular from the '70s onward?

C.M.--I was really just a kid when those shootings occurred. Kent State might as well have been a world away, geographically (Ohio is crammed with colleges). We used to drive through the Ohio State University campus that blends into State route 23, running through the heart of central Ohio. I remember mostly noting the long hair and the clothes of the college students. I do remember a piece of graffiti from back then that has hung in my head forever. On the wall of an abandoned burger joint was the warning: "Society is a carnivorous plant."
I don't think the Kent State shootings had a particular effect on just Ohio beyond the ousting of the state governor (who was re-elected just a few short years later, so no apparent lasting lesson learned there). My college memories are more of liberal arts professors wringing their hands over the election of Ronald Reagan. I more acutely remember the desolation of the Jimmy Carter years. In my neck of the woods, he was regarded as the most disastrous president since Harding.

## The early '80s were prosperous economic times and it would have been encouraging to a student about to graduate and look for work. How has Ohio changed in the last 20 to 25 years, and how is it doing in the present economic crisis? Have mining and farming been replaced as the main economic forces?

C.M.--Someone just crept through a bill allowing mining in a state park here in Ohio. Farmland? A lot of that has been converted into residential housing. Right now, Ohio is one of the hardest hit states in this recession. Unemployment here is much higher than the national average. Library funding is being cut, education is being cut. Ohio is in serious, serious jeopardy. The rust belt and manufacturing portions of the state are still in ruins. Part of the Appalachians extend through southern Ohio, and those areas remain extremely depressed. Cleveland and Cincinnati continue to lose population. We're about to undergo a national census that will determine numbers of house and senate seats. I'd be very surprised if Ohio doesn't lose national clout on that front.

## Did you choose journalism because it was for you the best way to keep writing everyday and pay the bills until you could get published?

C.M.--It was a career I was passionate about and I still regard as a noble calling when performed with professionalism and lack of bias. It was also a way to making a living as a writer, as well as to gather source material and writing discipline...learning to create against deadlines.

## Were you an employed journalist right out of university or did you have to work other jobs first? How did your career evolve?

C.M.--I was doing some freelance writing and even drawing editorial cartoons while in high school and as a college freshman. Then I moved into part-time and eventual full-time reporting while still a full-time student. I'd run back and forth between the newspaper office and classes in journalism, studying things I was already doing in the field. It was all a kind of spillover in that sense.

## Every writer is influenced by books, movies, life events, etc. What are the major events that shaped, influenced the writer (and by extension, the person) you are now?

C.M.--Certainly pulp literature and all these crime novels in my grandfather's basement shaped my reading interests. I was always fascinated by crime and there seemed to be a lot of violence and death that stood out for me as a child. I met Robert Kennedy at a Columbus campaign stop...shook his hand twice. Months later, he was assassinated. However, in my mind, the two events seem only days apart. A young boy who was a son of my mother's friend, whom I met briefly and spent an afternoon playing with, was later a victim of mutilation murder along with his girlfriend...a long-open case that was only just recently closed. I had a cousin who was killed in a terrible car accident shortly after I spent some time with her...I remember that standing out in my memory for a very long time. A man who played Santa Claus in my hometown was leaving a fraternal lodge when he was run over by a still-unidentified culprit. It was kind of reported as "Santa Claus killed in hit-skip..." That does things to your young head.
And just across the street from my grandfather's place, a woman was bludgeoned to death when I was a child. The husband's alibi was suspiciously reminiscent of Sam Sheperd's tale of a bushy haired intruder. And then there was a local radio host we listened to a lot while driving around in my dad's '66 Impala. This radio guy was found beaten to death in a residence hotel below the studio where he recorded. It was a sex crime. I really think all of this reinforced an early view of the world as a dark and dangerous place and gave me an outlook and interest in crime that led first to journalism, and eventually to writing crime fiction.

"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it" --Elmore Leonard

## You wrote Head Games, a historical, suspenseful road novel from a 1st person narrative (except towards the end) and then Toros & Torsos (I think Pelecanos described it best by calling it a "genre-bending novel") and Print the Legend (that I describe as a speculative historical crime novel) from 3rd person narratives. These narratives were logical choices to help the flow of the stories, and they work effectively. But how difficult is it to switch perspectives from Hector's point-of-view to an omniscient narrator? Didn't you a fell a bit more detached from him?

C.M.--Oddly enough, I feel closer to Hector writing him in third-person than in first. I think he's more fully realized in the third-person novels than in Head Games. Because he is a writer, and one with an agenda, I tend to think of Hector as being highly unreliable when he's talking directly to the reader. His voice is a little more "up-from-the-heels" and he's liable to pitch things harder and faster as a narrator. The fourth novel structurally, is closer to Toros & Torsos, but returns Hector to the role of narrator. I don't want to be confined by the notion that every novel in a series must be written in a monolithic POV. Lee Child switches between first- and third-person in his series. Plot also tends to mandate narrative voice.

## The first three novels criss-cross each other time-wise. Did you have a long-term view of Hector's life and of the whole series before you started writing the books, or did you go from one book to the next?

C.M.--The first novel was kind of a standalone in my mind, but it contained a magazine article that tended to lay down the skeleton of a biography of Hector's life up to 1957. When I decided to push on with the second book, Toros & Torsos, I went ahead and put a lot more flesh to his biography and came up with a timeline and the general plots and time periods for the other books. All eight will further "crisscross" in ways as they appear.

## Was Toros & Torsos in any way inspired by the 1930s "Cleveland Torso Murderer"? (I think Max Allan Collins wrote Butcher's Dozen, a fiction account of Eliot Ness working that case).

C.M.--No, but oddly enough, the first full crime novel manuscript I wrote, and which I stand by as being as worthy a work as any of the Lassiters, was based on the Cleveland Torso Murders. An Irish cop who figures in Print the Legend, and the fourth Lassiter novel, Roll the Creditsis actually a major player in that unpublished novel. I wrote my version of the Cleveland Torso murders about 1989-90. It's very much in the noir-historical thriller vein of the Lassiters, and, with that Irish cop bridging the works, could be seen as a part of Hector's extended world. I read Butcher's Dozen after I wrote my own novel on the subject. Many other works, including graphic novels, have since appeared centering on those crimes. I also interviewed at some length James Jessen Badal, a Cleveland author, who wrote what I think to be the finest nonfiction account of the murders entitled, In the Wake of the Butcher. I crossed paths with him again this past summer, and Badal's working on a companion book, now.

## Print the Legend is a tour-de-force (to use an accurate cliché) of plotting. The story goes back and forth in time, back and forth between characters, and still, it all flows so fluidly that it seems effortless. I have an image of an athlete having such a record-breaking day, and it seems so easy that you forget all the hours of practice, of sweat and pain that it took to achieve that success. How hard was it to get to the final structure of this particular book?

C.M.--Thanks so much for that. The structure and basic big moments were all in place from the start. I saw this one as being more strongly contrapuntal up front, as Hector "shares" the novel with the young pregnant Scottish writer, Hannah Paulson. Eventually, Hector and Hannah's storylines converge and we move more into the heart of the J. Edgar Hoover plot to discredit authors.
I'd also written enough about Hemingway and Hector's friendship that I felt comfortable going in and inserting these kinds of story-advancing flashbacks that also fit into earlier vignettes from previous novels. For me, the books in the Lassiter series are all fragments of a single, larger saga. Some of that perspective, I think drives the rather unusual use of time that spreads across the individual elements of the series.

## You've already written seven (possibly eight?) books in the series; can you tell if there's one specifically about the Pershing Expedition (mentioned in Head Games)?

C.M.--Head Games pretty much represents the most I'll do with the Pershing Expedition. At my editor's urging, I wrote a short story, "Colt", that sort of anticipates that portion of Hector's life, and sets up the origins of his Peacemaker revolver, but no, I don't do any more with that, I think. The remaining books will cover World War II, 1920s Paris and Key West, a cross-country chase novel set in 1950, and then a last book set in the late 1950s that will circle us back to Head Games in a way.

## The next one, book number 4, is titled Gnashville, Mon Amour. Can you share a bit of what it's about and why it previously was supposed to be book number 7?

C.M.--Well, the world has turned again. I wrote that Nashville book to be the last in the series and to bring it all back full circle to Head Games, but in a different context. My editor at the time, John Schoenfelder, read all of the novels and picked Print the Legend and the Nashville book as the two he wanted to publish first at Minotaur. After Print became the novel that it did in the editing process, we both agreed the Nashville book should be pushed back in favor of something more in scale and tone with Print the Legend. The book we settled on to be number four is called Roll the Creditsa World War II novel, in most senses, that pits Hector, the crime novelist, against a sadistic German filmmaker. 
In a perfect world, the Nashville book will once again be the last novel published in the should be that way.

## Now that you've signed with Minotaur/St.Martin's, will the publishing schedule of the series stay at two books per year (one in the spring and one in the fall)?

C.M.--So far it's a book-a-year schedule. I argued for two books a year, because the novels are all written and ready to go, but it's a marketing and sales issue, as the novels appear first in hardcover, then in trade paperback, and it's an issue of coordinating promotions/sales across the formats. At this moment, it looks like the French translations from Belfond might come one after another through fall of 2010 and spring of 2011.

## You obviously haven't stopped writing since that story when you were nine years old because you've mentioned, in previous interviews, that you have many completed novels in your drawers. Will they all be printed or are some of them just practice and honing material for the publishable ones?

C.M.--They'd all be printed if I could sell them. Some I've never tried to sell, as they're part of a series that's more chronological in structure than the Lassiter books. I've actually turned down offers on novels, for strategic reasons related to publishing support and so forth. We had two offers on what I originally regarded as the third Lassiter novel, and passed on both. At the moment, that novel, maybe my favorite of the Lassiter books, is one of those novels in a holding pattern, ironically enough. It would have been out there already if I hadn't made the strategic decision to pass on those earlier offers.

## Are any of those novels already published under a nom de plume?

C.M.--No. I'm toying with going down that road, perhaps, but for the moment, everything I've published is under my own name.

## What is the most satisfying moment: writing the first sentence, the Eureka moment when you find a way to tie up all the loose ends, finishing the first draft, etc? And what's the most frustrating one?

C.M.--Selling the book and knowing you've taken it across that line is when you sit back and smile. Until then, you're pretty much your own audience and that's often a lonely place to be.
The most frustrating moment? Really, the waiting to hear back from potential publishers. It's miserable hanging on tenterhooks and I seem to do a lot of it.

## Are you a rewriter of full manuscripts or a fusser as you go on, sweating over each sentence and word?

C.M.--I used to be a "fusser", and my progress was glacial through a manuscript. Now I plow through and try to write the first full draft in two to three months. I try, in the process of doing that, to do the Hemingway thing where you read up to the point you left off in the previous writing session, revising as you along. So the work remains in a state of perpetual revision, but you're also charging forward.

## How does your typical day look like in terms of writing? Do you write from early morning until you drop, do you fix yourself a certain number of words to reach, etc?

C.M.--As a full-time journalist, and the father of two young daughters, I write when I can. Depending on work schedules, I've been a morning writer, and I've been an evening writer. I've written eighteen hours at a clip over weekends...on "vacation". It's evenings and weekends these days, but I have such a backlog of material, I'm kind of easing up/slowing down for the present time.

## If I ask critic/reviewer McDonald, what would he say about crime fiction writer McDonald?

C.M.--Love him or hate him, he takes chances, he strives, and he leaves it all on the field, for better or worse.

## You'll probably soon (if not already) have been interviewed as many times as you've interviewed other writers, so how do you feel about being in the other chair?

C.M.--I'm still much further ahead in terms of interviewing authors than having been interviewed. That said, it's still very odd for me to be at the other end of the process. I can't fathom people caring about me enough to ask, honestly.

## Do you separate the journalism writing and the fiction writing with physical differences, like writing on a different computer or in a different room, etc? Any specific rituals or superstitions related to writing?

C.M.--I've tried hard to ground out all rituals and superstitions. I'm a writer and I write. It's that simple -- this is what I do for a living. I write on a computer, in a notebook...on napkins for notes. Whatever. I just keep my head down and try to stay on task.

## Every writer is influenced, in some ways, by other writers. What are the challenges in making sure that you develop your own style, especially when you've been reading, studying and interviewing so many of them?

C.M.--My voice came fairly early, but it deepened in some ways, I think, when I had children of my own. I suspect there is a connection between that development in my own life and my finally securing publication.
The great danger, as you say, is that the voice of other authors infiltrates your own through reading their works. I seem pretty resistant to that. The hardest ones to guard against are Ellroy and Bruen -- at least for me. Their styles and voices can get in your head in the most insidious ways. But I seem able to stand against them, now, too.

## For various reasons, some writers hate short stories (writing them). Where do they fit for you; when inspiration hits, when one is commissioned, when you can't turn one into a novel, etc? And do you find them easier to write than novels?

C.M.--Short stories I've written under all those conditions you describe. But they're a trial for ma, more often than not. I don't come to the form naturally, although I love it and admire those who excels in writing short stories. My own storylines and plot ideas tend to be sprawling and so too big for the format. Here's a secret: The first chapter of Toros & Torsos was a short story I was writing for something. I finished it and decided, No, this is the opening chapter of my next novel.

## "The ones who don't create," she said "what sustains them?". Hector answered "Maybe the simple fact they're spared the compulsion." (p. 388 Book II of Toros & Torsos). What is the compulsion like for you?

C.M.--Extremely hard to deny. There was a period when I kind of gave up on fiction writing. My schedule at the time made it pretty much necessary. Even in a journalism capacity, I was moved away from writing and more toward administration. I don't know what sustained me through that period. I do need to write, whatever the format or genre.

## "(...) Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be. (...) Hammett write the man he feared he was. And you, Hector, you increasingly write about the man you don't want to be anymore." You see where I'm going here: Craig McDonald writes the man...?

C.M.--He sometimes wishes he had the audacity to be.

"When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. Characters are caricature." --Ernest Hemingway

## James Crumley, who died in 2008, is one of your "personal hero authors", to quote your words, and you've mentioned before that he was the main inspiration behind the creation of Hector Lassiter. Can you explain how this came to be, what the similarities between the two are, and what did James Crumley had to say about that?

C.M.--Some of it grew out of email discussions with another author regarding James Crumley and his handling of ongoing characters as age settled over them. For my part, I kind of wished James had gone even farther with the issue of aging for these hard-living, macho guys he'd created.
I think, too, like Hemingway, James Crumley sometimes felt an obligation to play to type for those who sought him out. He created a kind of persona that could eclipse his work at times. So I put some of that same perceived compulsion into Lassiter in that first novel. Hector's posing a bit for his interviewer, Bud Fiske, through much of the early going in Head Games. Hector's doing what he thinks readers of his work like Alicia and Bud expect of him. At the same time, he's treating them a bit like characters in his books.
As to Mr. Crumley's reaction? I don't know that he caught any of himself in Lassiter. He read Head Games as an ARC and gave me a very wonderful endorsement I still cherish as one of the great gifts in my life. I'd hoped to get Rogue Males to him, my second interview collection which he leads off, but he passed away just as we were wrapping up copy edits and sending it to galley. Like I said, I don't know if James saw any of himself in Lassiter, but Craig Holden wrote to me to say he thought that was the case, and so did Ken Bruen -- they both saw Crumley in Lassiter.

## How much thought do you put into naming your characters? What's the story behind Hector Lassiter's name?

C.M.--I'm pretty choosy about making names. Oddly enough, I just wrote a piece about this regarding Hector for a bookstore in Texas. Hector was a name I picked because it could go either side of the's slightly Latino and yet it's classical, too. And I saw the character as having a kind of "hectoring" quality in the short story I created for him. Lassiter I picked up from and old pool player named Luther Lassiter. Because I modelled his biography partly on the crime writer Jonathan Latimer, a lot of people think Hector's an homage to that writer, but really, it was the billiard's player name I had in mind.

## Hector Lassiter doesn't necessarily believe that "he writes what he lives and lives what he writes" even though many characters think that it applies to him. It certainly defines him very well but he's much more than that. What was your inspiration for that description and how do you describe Hector to people who haven't read your books?

C.M.--Hector himself loathes that description as the series progresses, and, in time, we'll see he actually takes a fairly drastic step to move from under that merged shadow and characterization of his person and his writing. Early on, I tended to describe Hector as a larger-than-life novelist whose work and personal life exert strange tensions on one another. That's a mouthful. So, the pithy way to put it became, "The man who writes what he lives and lives what he writes." It's potent shorthand for the basic axis on which all the Lassiter books turn.

## Lassiter's writing seems to mesh into (or at least echo) your own novels about him, with identical titles and storylines; John Irving does that in his novel Last Night in Twisted River, and Stephen King goes even further by putting himself in his Dark Tower series. It's probably easier for King because it's part of a fantasy series, but still, the blending of reality and fiction works really well for you and Irving also. I wonder if it's not something that you do cautiously, making sure you don't enter parody territory nor change too much the spotlight from a fictional writer to the real one. Were you hesitant to do it or is it part of the big picture of the series?

C.M.--I'm trying to be very careful about it, but it is also important in an underlying way in the sense that Hector is a writer, and he's narrating many of these stories to us. That raises the possible issue of his motives or agendas in telling us these stories. James Sallis does some of this in his Lew Griffin novels. We learn Lew Griffin, private eye, professor and crime novelist, writes about Lew Griffin, mystery novel character. Some of Lew Griffin's novels about Lew Griffin, share the same titles as James Sallis's novels about Lew Griffin. The Sallis series was the prime inspiration for my Lassiter novels, so I let some of that self-awareness and meta subtext creep in as an homage to Sallis.
But a little of that can go a long way or call too much attention to itself and knock you out of the story. I wouldn't contemplate dropping myself into my own book, although I do crop up as an author/character in one of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels. Prior to that book's appearance, I'd used Ken as the stand-in for FBI agent Kenneth Brown in Head Games (actually, a number of real people are disguised in that novel, befitting its title in a sense). Some of those post-modern flourishes begin to drop away in the remaining novels.

## How do you stay true to the legacy of historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, and others, when bringing them back to life in fiction? Do you set yourself some rules?

C.M.--i try to have them in the right places and times in terms of where they were in the real world during the periods I'm writing about. I try to be true to their known biographies and personalities as I glean them from nonfiction accounts and interviews. Hemingway's voice I extrapolated from his letters and in terms of how I personally think he likely came across in private life and in informal social settings. Welles I drew largely from recorded interviews and, again, a few select biographies. I took a few film courses in which Welles figured prominently, so my sense of Orson was formed early and strongly.

## These people were larger than life characters and they became mythic figures; did you look at them from a biographer's point-of-view or strictly from a writer's one with only your storyline in mind?

C.M.--Story first...always story and their role within that frame. At the same time, they are public figures who have these iconic public faces. So you try to evoke some of that while revealing the person inside the star-quality veneer.

## You've created a wide-range of very interesting and complex characters (or real people, as Papa would say). Once they're all set in their specific arc of the stories, do they fight for attention in your head or are they patiently waiting their turn?

C.M.--They're pretty tightly corralled. The only character who kind of ran in her own direction is a female character in one of the unpublished books who is loosely modelled on a couple of female mystery writers including Craig Rice. She extended her reach from one novel into another. It wasn't my intention to use her in that way, but she emerged as kind of the pivotal female character in Hector's life...and his first wife.

"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please" --Mark Twain

## It seems to me that you must do a lot of research but you juggle so well every aspect (visual art, literature, historical figures, times and places) that you must have known a lot already. Where did you focus your research and what did you already know enough that you didn't need to research much?

C.M.--It's more a matter of already knowing the stuff. I do a lot of fact-checking as opposed to looking for materials. I build books around longtime, intense preoccupations or obsessions. Writing and history have always been my prime subjects, so I found a way to combine the two. The historical stuff I've used to date is all stuff I've spent years informally reading about and studying.

## What is the biggest challenge when writing stories that rely heavily on historical aspects, especially from a time before you were even born, or were very young?

C.M.--As I look back over the eight books, I see a lot of concentration on the late 1950s. I think that may be because time moved slower back then, in a sense. By that I mean, if I look back on even 1990s clothes, cars and so forth, it's dated furiously. It seems of a time, already. But in the early 1960s, even the middle 1960s, the culture and décor and styles of the 1950s were still very much in evidence. All those 1950s cars were still prowling the streets...the fashion and attitudes were largely unchanged. So in that sense, I'm writing a lot of the Lassiter series from kind of direct memory. As to the earlier decades, I tend to read a lot of material and watch movies from that era more than from my own. I think most of us alive, now, have our sense of those older periods shaped by shared memories derived from books and films and still photographs. So I don't go so much for high-detail verisimilitude, so much as trying to nail our collective sense of a time and a place.

## You've said that you're probably done publishing interviews in book form. That's too bad because I'm sure you have enough stuff for a few more books. Why stop now if your next novels are already written?

C.M.--I have enough for probably one more solid collection of interviews, although it would be a bit more sweeping and unfocused than the first two, which had some thematic qualities linking the interviews.
I spent a lot of time prepping for interviews, and I don't have that time anymore. And I got my turn with most of the writers who most interested me as creators. The other issue is one of finding a publisher for such books, which can be an even taller order, particularly in the present market. I've got a partial interview book batched together on my hard drive and that's about it. If some publisher is interested, hey, we can talk.

## In the early '80s, Stephen King wrote Danse Macabre, a great book on the horror fields of films and books. With your vast knowledge, you'd be a great candidate to write one about crime fiction. Is that something that you'd consider doing at some point?

C.M.--Likely not. I tend to write shorter-form pieces along those lines in blog entries, or requested essays...columns for Crimespree Magazine and so forth. But I think that kind of book requires a passion and a focus I don't embody in some ways. Woody Haut's studies in crime fiction I love. I loved Lee Horsley's updated The Noir Thriller. I love to read those kinds of books, but I don't think I'd have the patience to write one myself. And I don't know what new thing I could bring to any of it.

## Lassiter is now given life on audio books by Tom Stechschulte, an awesome reader and true actor. Any actors you'd like to see playing Lassiter on the big screen? (portraying him at different times in his life could be a challenge).

C.M.--We had early film interest when Head Games' sale was announced, and one of my picks to play Lassiter actually had his production company looking at Head Games. It was a heady few weeks before they passed. Visually, I modelled Hector pretty strongly on William Holden, so you'd need that kind of Old Hollywood charisma to really put Hector across effectively, I think. I could see Jon Hamm being a good Hector for Toros & Torsos.
Part of your question touches on the critical hurdle of film adaptation is someone wanted to tackle these books in that way. Apart from makeup concerns in portraying a character across decades, something like Toros & Torsos would be the equivalent of mounting four or five period films. I've tended to use diverse locations and big backdrops for these books, and that sure doesn't make them any easier to sell to Hollywood.

## Lassiter will also find himself in graphic novel format. At least for Head Games, that you are adapting yourself; what is your approach to that process? It must be awful to have to decide what to cut and what to keep after you've spent so much time writing the novel. Does it feel like adapting your story or more like creating a new one?

C.M.--It's a little of each. It's instructive as an exercise to do it -- maybe opens you up as a writer to some new tricks and touches. But it's also kind of like exquisite torture, in some ways. I tried to be pretty ruthless with it and just think of it as another format and to only use those things that lent themselves to a visual medium to the extent I could do that.
I also adapted Head Games as a film script. I thought the graphic novel script would make that film script easy going. No. Again, it's a completely different form. Having cast the same story through three different formats, I'd never do it again. It was a learning experience...once.

## "Art should give us back the world that our living confiscates" --John Wilson (beginning of chapter 43 in Toros & Torsos). Through the art of writing, you give us back the world of Hemingway, Welles, Dietrich, Villa, and others. I know you're far from stopping, but what would you like future generations of readers to remember about your work?

C.M.--My goal, really, is just to create a world you want to explore and leave reluctantly; a world peopled by characters you want to spend time with, and whom you remember. That's it. That's enough.

## You've interviewed James Sallis, James Crumley, Elmore Leonard, and many other legends of crime fiction writing; what do you hope to never forget about those privileged encounters?

C.M.--The warm and welcoming and patient way they handled me. They were all true gentlemen and Crumley and Sallis, particularly, teachers in the purest sense. The majority of crime writers I interviewed were hand-selected, so I kind of knew what I'd be getting, but they still impressed me with their generosity of spirit and dedication to craft.
That said, I've met a few authors who ran inadvertent clinics for me regarding how not to comport oneself as an author and an interview subject. They'll remain unnamed, but they taught me a few lessons, too.

ON and OFF the ROAD
"Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason" --Jerry Seinfeld

## You're very active out there, on your website, on Facebook, Twitter, and you not only write your own blog, but you also drop in and participate on other blogs. You've got to like it for sure, but do you feel you have to fight for every single copy you sell of your books, for every new reader you grab?

C.M.--Bluntly, I do all you describe with great uneasiness. I wish I knew the surefire answer to maintaining a fiction-writing career in this market and this age. Blogging I came to very late and I'm trying to be very careful and select with it. I've seen a lot of blogs-for-blogging's sake that make my soul hurt. Some of this stuff, done badly, can actually cost you readers, I think. It's a balance I'm still striving to strike. We play the hand we're dealt and, for better or worse, these are the demands we're placing on authors at the moment.

## Now that you're with St.Martin's/Minotaur, you'll probably be promoting a lot more on the road. Although you've been around and the whole crime/mystery community (writers, publishers, agents, etc) already knows you fairly well, to a large portion of the readership you're still one of the new guys. All that said, you're probably better prepared than the young "first-time" author who's wondering what he'll write in his next book because he put everything he knew in that first one. Does touring take the fun out of being a writer for you and make it too much of a business or can you enjoy yourself?

C.M.--I've done very little in terms of personal appearances other than some convention panels. I'm actually going out for some limited touring for the first time with Print the Legend, and I'm not someone who relishes public speaking. I made some remark at the most recent Bouchercon that if Hemingway had to tour, had to be blogging and posting things to social networks, he'd have killed himself ten years earlier. It got a decent laugh at the time, but there's something other than humor underlying that, too. Writers should write, in a perfect world.
I can probably better answer that question as an interviewer who asked the same question of a number of authors. Ninety-nine percent of them love meeting fans, but they hate touring. The hate it.

## A high percentage of writers I've asked have said that touring is so exhausting that they can't write at all while promoting. Can you leave writing aside while promoting?

C.M.--I don't think there's a choice but to leave it aside, particularly if you're on a publisher paid-for-and-planned tour. They grind the authors through at such a pitiless pace there's nothing left. I've seen tours all but destroy authors. I don't think any author relishes the roadwork as it tends to be organized now.

## Trying to categorize books and especially authors can be futile but it is very important in bookstores (and better have your books shelved anywhere than nowhere at all is probably the general consensus amongst writers). But if you hadn't published Art in the Blood and had not been known for your interviews with crime writers and your reviews, do you think that Head Games would have ended up in the mystery section of bookstores or in the general fiction one?

C.M.--A lot of this depends on some key-setter in your publishing house and what they plug into database fields, up front. Once the brand is on you, as Daniel Woodrell says, try getting it off. I regarded Head Games as a novel. Both of my Bleak House-published novels carried the term "A Novel" on the covers. The first dummy cover for Print the Legend said "A Mystery". I balked at that, strongly. I asked for "A Novel." Minotaur and me settled on "A Crime Novel."
I've walked into bookstores and found Head Games in one section of the store, and Toros & Torsos in another. As you indicate, so long as the books get stocked at all, well, that's some of the battle.

## When reading reviews of your books, specifically for Print the Legend, no one can quite put you in a specific genre and I think that the "genre-bending" term will stay with you until someone finds a better one (or a more specific one). How do you define the Hector Lassiter series, now that you know the entire arc of the series?

C.M.--"Secret histories" and "literary thrillers" are the terms I seem to return to most in describing my own novels. And, yes, you're right, I'm frequently singled out for "bending" "extending" or "transcending" the genre in many reviews -- all terms that many mystery and crime fiction critics seem to rue, but there it is. If anyone has a label that works for describing what I do, I'd gratefully accept it.

LAST WORDS...for now
"Don't let it end like this.Tell them I said something." --Pancho Villa's last words

## Many writers are also teachers of creative writing or literature classes; have you ever done it or would it interest you at all? On what would you focus your teaching?

C.M.--I'd love to teach writing in a formal setting. I've run a writing clinic or two, and I've given private advice here and there, but that's about it to date. In a classroom setting, I'd focus on cultivating voice and point of view...character as plot. And I'd work on polishing prose. One true sentence -- that's the goal.

## What is the best piece of advice you've ever received from another writer (or someone in the book industry) ?

C.M.--Write to your passions and use the old film rule when it comes to setting scenes/putting across action: "Get in late and get out early."

## How do you want to evolve as a writer, do you have specific goals?

C.M.--The immediate, main and basic goal is to remain published and relevant in a tough and changing market. Beyond that? To get better: to continue to surprise. I don't want to be one of those authors who gives you the same novel, over and over. The publishing world is lousy with those kinds of writers.

## You're a cognoscenti in the crime fiction genre, so I have to ask you to point out the five books that for you best define crime fiction writing. I know it's a tough one but I won't argue with those titles, I'll leave it for others to do that.

C.M.--In that spirit, and without context, my crucial five would be William Lindsay Gresham's Nightmare Alley, Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss, James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere and James Sallis' Eye of the Cricket. If you gave me six, I'd add in a collection of Flannery O'Connor's short stories.

## Are you a sports fan? If yes, is it the Reds or the Indians, the Bengals or the Browns, etc?

C.M.--I'm not a sports fan and I am a lousy spectator. Between journalism, family and fiction writing, who has the time for anything else?

## What's your view on Obama's first year and how do you see him doing (or hope he'll do) in the next three years of his term?

C.M.--I've never ducked an interview question, but I'm afraid I'll have to duck this one. As a journalist I've been barred for my entire voting life from ever putting a bumper sticker on a car or an election sign in my yard. It's been a career mandate as a journalist never to take sides, and that spills over into my fiction writing, as well. Hector frequently proclaims, "I've got no politics." In some ways, I am like him. I hate it when fiction writers inject their politics into their works, and I take it as a point of pride that my own politics remain opaque in my fiction.
That said, people make guesses about my politics from time to time based on things I've written, and they nearly always get it wrong. What alarms me more, and which I find sadly telling in terms of why journalism is in some trouble now, is the number of people or authors on the left who say something along the lines of, "You're a journalist, so surely you believe..." That perception of perforce bias on the part of working journalists is another reason why journalism is in such distress.
I will say this: 2009 was a lousy year on balance and should be stricken from the record books.

## Do you think the US government still keeps an eye (and an ear!) on some writers?

C.M.--Honestly? Yeah, though not like J. Edgar Hoover did.

## If I could ask him, what would Lassiter have to say about the life you gave him? And how would Hemingway react about his second life?

C.M.--Even though he used real people in his fiction and "nonfiction" (a slippery term when applied to Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Green Hills of Africa and Death in the Afternoon), I'm sure Hemingway would kick my ass. I think I've been fair, and I've written him from the perspective of someone who adores Hemingway, warts and all, but I'm sure Hem would hate it.
Hector? I'm not sure I even wrote Hector so much as I channeled him. He's an attitude...a way of looking at the world. In that sense, he kind of wrote -- and writes -- himself. He's so firmly established in my head, when I unleash him, he just hauls the narrative along behind.

## As a last question, here's what I ask every writer that I interview: there is a novel written and you are the main character; what would be the first sentence of the book, and how would your character die?

C.M.--My God...that's some question. Let's see, first sentence:
"Jenna, blonde and pretty enough, said, "Mr. McDonald, my family was so not amused by your first novel."
As to my exit? I'd favor perishing in a frenzied firefight somewhere along the Juarez/El Paso border. An Alamo-like send off involving Yale frat boys, and the like. No body found, of course. I'd go out like fellow Ohioan Ambrose Bierce in that sense...just disappear.

JF  April 10th, 2011

I want to thank Craig McDonald for doing this interview; having devoured his books of interviews (and novels), I was very nervous and sort of afraid to send him questions that I knew he'd find stupid! How do you interview the best interviewer of writers? He was a gentlemen with it, and never hurt me nor my feelings.  

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