Friday, October 30, 2009

Charles Willeford on Words and Writing

“I joined writer’s clubs, short story classes, where we sat around and read each other’s efforts. It was terrible. It was a never-ending run on a runaway treadmill. The more I tried to conform to the formula the more hopeless it all appeared. I lost all hope; I reached the point where I no longer cared what people thought about my writing. And that is when I began to write.

“I wrote for ten years before I sold a line. During this period I discovered encouragement, many times, is a lot worse than discouragement. Only by reaching the depths of depression can you find the courage to go on.”

–Charles Willeford, “Writing as an Art”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

First Lines: Jonathan Latimer

I remember when I was first getting into crime fiction, I was in a used bookstore in Bangor, ME, passing over all the titles in the “mystery” section, and not knowing 95% of the authors. There was something about the oddly plain, red typography of one spine that caught my eye, Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer. The collage-style cover of black-and-white photographs was certainly appealing, but it was the first line that instantly arrested me. Almost as soon as the book was bought it was read. Who was this Jonathan Latimer, and where can I find the rest of his books?

Several years later, I now have all of them, and even though I still have a couple left to read, I decided to pull together the first lines of all his novels. I tried something similar a few months ago with David Goodis, and the results seemed to cohere more than they do here. Oh, well – still some good first lines, though I still think Solomon’s Vineyard still takes the cake (and, for my money, it is his best novel). Also, for those interested, there is a complete bibliography available at Rara-Avis.

"It was nearly evening." –Murder in the Madhouse, 1935

"In the cell to the right, a man was still crying." –Headed for a Hearse, 1935

"The morgue attendant jerked the receiver from the telephone, choked off the bell in the middle of a jangling ring." –The Lady in the Morgue, 1936

"With a hollow rattle of its muffler the Greyhound bus disappeared down the cement road and left me in the darkness." –The Search For My Great-Uncle’s Head, 1937

"Sunset splashed gold paint on the windows of the white marble house, brought out apricots and pinks and salmons in the flowering azaleas." –The Dead Don’t Care, 1938

“There’s a burglar downstairs,” Ann Fortune said. –Red Gardenias, 1939

"In the afternoon a white mist came down from the mountains to the plateau, veiling the scrub timber and the underbrush and the road." –Dark Memory, 1940

"From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed." –Solomon’s Vineyard (The Fifth Grave), 1941

"A buzzing noise woke Sam Clay." –Sinners and Shrouds, 1955

"He first heard the sound sometime around quarter to eleven." –Black is the Fashion for Dying (The Mink Lined Coffin), 1959

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Kenneth Fearing On Words and Writing

Some reflections on the craft of writing by the author of The Big Clock, who was also a terrific poet. This excerpt comes from the Preface to his New and Selected Poems from 1956.

"There can be a unique exhilaration in creative writing, and it can offer the surprise of final discovery. These qualities exist in life (sometimes), and if they are not to be found in a verbal presentation of it, then the reader (or audience) has been cheated and the writer has been killing everyone's time. This excitement and surprise must be real, not counterfeit, and have in it the breath of those crises upon which most people feel their lives are poised, sometimes crossing into them, in fact, and then rarely with routine behavior, seldom with standardized results. A writer cannot do much to transmit an excitement he does not feel, and the only surprises are those that find themselves, as the work grows." – Kenneth Fearing, Preface to New and Selected Poems (1956)

Photo by Jean Purcell, circa 1940

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"It's Always Four O'Clock/Iron Man" by W. R. Burnett (Stark House, 2009)

What does it mean to praise an author and his or her work? To assign my own words to describe those of another? I could easily label W.R. Burnett as a “great” writer, or call either of his two novels in the new Stark House Press collection – It’s Always Four O’Clock and Iron Man – “great” works, but somehow that label feels inappropriate considering Burnett’s condemnation of the word in It’s Always Four O’Clock.

“Words, words, words! And I’m stuck for some to use. Words are like painted marbles, they get all the stuff rubbed off of them. Take ‘great.’ What does it mean? It means ‘great,’ you donkeyhead, you yell back at me. All right. So now we got ‘great’ movie actors, and ‘great’ automobiles, and ‘great’ refrigerators and even ‘great’ lipsticks. So what are you going to call George Washington? Do you dig me now?”

Not wanting to be guilty of comparing him to a kitchen appliance, I’ll have to find another way of praising him. He’s graceful or fierce in all the right places, merciless or full of aching sympathy depending on what the moment calls for, and never there’s a word out of place. Burnett manages to be as unconventionally elegant as Royal, the pianist/composer in It’s Always Four O’Clock that defies the borders of jazz and classical, and as direct and no-nonsense as one of Coke Mason’s knockout swings in Iron Man.

The most fitting epithet, however, comes from David Laurence Wilson, who referred to Burnett as “a mercenary with a pen” in his introductory essay, “W.R. Burnett: A Versatile Hardboiled Master.” Interweaving personal remembrances of Burnett (whom he was fortunate enough to know) with keen critical and biographical insight, Wilson evokes not only the intensity with which Burnett uses words, but also his ruthless precision. These two novels are unmistakably the work of the same creator, yet they are so distinct in their styles, so utterly different in their approaches. It’s Always Four O’Clock, with its casual, first-person narrator, seems to take on the freewheeling sensibility of a jam session, while Iron Man’s sparse, removed prose can seem as cold as Coke Mason’s sweat before the big match. What unifies them, then, is the pitch-perfect harmony between the story and the language used by Burnett to tell it.

Originally published in 1956 and finally making its paperback debut, It’s Always Four O’Clock isn’t your typical rise and fall story, partially because the rise is so short lived, but mostly because its fall is filled with the tragic, all-too-human ironies that only an unfortunate survivor can detachedly laugh at on the surface while silently cursing on the inside. Stan Pawley is a jazz guitarist without much ambition, and while he likes the guys he plays with, he knows it’s not real music, that a lot of them are just going through the motions. Then one night in a bar he befriends Royal Mauch, an aloof and eccentric pianist, and together they form a band that pushes all the boundaries their contemporaries refuse to push. Burnett clearly sympathizes with each of the members of the group, all of whom are caught between art and commercialism – between destroying yourself over your work and compromising your work in order to make that paycheck. Self-destructive drive, ambivalence, and opportunism each contribute to the group’s collective downfall, but to Burnett’s credit he doesn’t create easy martyrs or victims, just characters with no easy out.

Whereas It’s Always Four O’Clock is filtered through Stan’s guilt, regret, and pathos, Iron Man (originally published in 1930) betrays no emotion. Told in strictly detached and impersonal third-person, the story unfolds almost entirely through dialogue and objective action. Reading this story of middle-weight boxer Coke Mason, who like Royal Mauch rises through the ranks to mythological heights from which he can’t help but fall, it is no wonder that Hollywood would soon be calling: the emphasis on external action over internal thoughts is made for the movies. The lack of intimacy with the characters also foreshadows the major betrayals and breakups that befall Coke Mason as his career grows: Burnett hides subjectivity in order to emphasize superficiality. In the book’s final pages, when Coke finds himself alone and surrounded by status-centric bloodsuckers, Burnett burrows deep into his character, revealing to us mountains of pain and emotion that even Coke didn’t realize he contained before. Such stylistic orchestration succeeds in making an even greater impact on the reader: when Coke takes those final punches (both literal and figurative), they hurt like nothing else that has come before.

Another way of linking the books that also brings in some of Burnett’s famous works (such as Little Caesar) is that these are quintessential books about America, particularly the conflict of idealism and the way things really work behind closed doors, where corruption and disillusionment run rampant. The Land of Opportunity can sometimes be deceiving: success and wealth may seem they are for the taking, but taking isn’t always the way to achieve them (at least not for very long). “Sometimes it is good to remember even the inconvenient aspects of American culture,” reminds David Laurence Wilson. And he’s right – look at these two books by Burnett, and you’ll see a diverse cross-section of life (in terms of race, class, gender, and politics). More than just portraits of a nation, they are also invaluable commentaries on society and culture at the time.

Quotes, as always.

It’s Always Four O’Clock

“I felt as out of place as a blind man at a burlesque show.”

“Did you ever walk into a wide-awake, enthusiastic, sober gathering of friends when you were drunk, tired, disgusted, sleepy and ready to knock your head against the wall? Then you know what I mean.”

“Yeah. You know. Four A.M. It’s when the world slows down. It’s when things look worst. It’s when most people die.”

Iron Man

“Funny!” he thought. “When I didn’t have Rose I figured if I could find her, I’d never be lonesome no more. Funny! Yeah, and when I was a kid I thought if I could ever be champion I’d be the happiest guy on earth. Funny, how things are!”

Friday, October 9, 2009

Interview with Megan Abbott

An interview I conducted with Megan Abbott about Bury Me Deep earlier this summer was recently published in The Brooklyn Rail. Those in New York City can pick up copies, but it is also available online to read. For those that haven't read her book yet, it is without a doubt one of the best novels you'll read this year. I also reviewed the book here on Pulp Serenade when it was released a couple months back. Here's a brief excerpt from the interview:

Gallagher: Your first three books all take place in the 1950s, and your new one is in the 1930s, which is really the heyday of the crime fiction pulps. Is there no connection?

Abbott: I’m sure there is. This was not intentional, but it was probably the absence of certain kinds of women from those books that made me want to write those kinds of women in that time period. But I would say that’s the most direct connection. It was to write women into those books in a way that didn’t feel just like spider-women. There are two parts of my brain that I don’t want to meet. I don’t want to apply my analytical approach to my writing. I think my books would be terrible if I did that, and I have trouble even thinking about them after I’ve written them in an analytical way, even though everything else I read I think about in an analytical way. I try to keep the processes very distinct.

Read the full interview here at The Brooklyn Rail.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Interview with David Laurence Wilson

Previously on Pulp Serenade I reviewed Stark House Press’ latest trio of Harry Whittington titles (To Find Cora/Like Mink Like Murder/Body and Passion) and also interviewed Stark House editor and publisher Greg Shepard. Another of the pivotal figures in that collection was David Laurence Wilson, whose drive helped to uncover many of Whittington’s once-thought “lost” works. His essay that opens the collection, “Harry and His Bastard Children,” shows not only the depth of his knowledge about Whittington, but also an instinctive empathy with his working methods and thematic preoccupations.

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing David about the story behind the book’s publication, as well as his other endeavors, including his rubber stamp company. You can see a couple of his designs peppered throughout the interview.

Pulp Serenade: You’ve spent a long time researching and writing about Harry Whittington, including working with Stark House Press to publish two anthologies, A Night for Screaming/Any Woman He Wanted, and most recently To Find Cora/Like Mink Like Murder/Body and Passion. How did this collaboration begin?

David Laurence Wilson: In the early eighties I contributed to the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction. Mostly I wrote about guys I considered friends or mentors, among them Niven Busch, Oakley Hall and Sid Fleischman. When it looked like there was going to be a revision of the encyclopedia, a chance to fix my mistakes, I also wanted to add Whittington because I really enjoyed his work. Later the encyclopedia became less likely, though I still wanted to publish the story on Whittington.

Ed Gorman responded to a comment I made on the Rara-Avis Internet discussion group. I told him there was a book I wanted to do, a collection of Whittington’s short stories, one of Harry's last, unsold efforts. Gorman put me in touch with Greg Shepard, at Stark House, who wanted two novels and an introduction. I suggested A Night For Screaming (because it's so good) and Any Woman He Wanted (mostly because it was a second Mike Ballard novel, after one of Harry's best, Brute In Brass). They were also two completely different types of stories, a good example of Whittington’s variety.

PS: How about this latest trio of Whittington titles? In your introduction, you mention that you have been tracking down his 38 lost books for quite some time, ones published under varying pseudonyms that were previously nothing more than a mysterious footnote to his career.

DLW: I was close to identifying these books as early as 2000, but I dropped the effort for two reasons. Harry's widow, Kathyrn, was uncomfortable with the packaging of the books and the way they were promoted. Also, I'd questioned the editor at Corinth, Earl Kemp, and he gave me an education: Harry had believed that the books were published by Ember. I figured that I knew Harry's style well enough to be able to identify his books from among the others (somewhere over 100 novels). Well, Kemp assured me that there was no such thing as a “writer” for Ember. Books came to the publisher, Corinth, and were released as a “Midnight Reader,” “Nightstand,” “Ember,” basically, any imprint that needed a story. That gave me thousands of possibilities for the Whittington novels. The margin of error was increased by a factor of twenty. I didn't want to make any mistakes in identifying these books and I didn't want to contribute to anyone else's misinformation. I felt that if I didn't have at least one book that I was sure had come from Harry I couldn't make the identifications. I had to start with something that I was sure about. As it turns out, none of the books I’d been reading were Whittingtons, and only one of the novels was published as an Ember Book. I found that one, mostly, by chance.

Two things happened in 2005. Kathyrn Whittington passed away. Identifying the books, showing the world the fullness and endurance of Harry's career, would do nothing to trouble her now.

For my part, I was diagnosed with Stage Three Melanoma. I was entering a year and a half that I cannot completely account for. I received two surgeries and I spent a year in a clinical trial. To explain my attitude, I put aside a book I'd been working on for years, a history of stuntwork in American films, and I began assembling and shaping my interviews, essays and photographs of crime fiction writers like W.R. Burnett, Jonathan Latimer, Dorothy Hughes, and George Harmon Coxe. Before this I had no title for the project. Now I named this book Deathstyles and my idea was to introduce each of the writers by their means of death. I figured that I would be joining them soon enough. I wasn't expecting to finish it. I just wanted to get it into shape so that someone else could take over, and I was considering how I could do this.

I felt like everything or never!

I also figured that I had a commitment to Harry and his family, whom I knew from my work on the essay in the A Night For Screaming collection. Kathyrn had been very supportive and enthusiastic about what I had written in the introduction. Though we never met in person, I have fond memories from our correspondence and phone calls.

PS: So how did things finally come together?

DLW: After Kathryn’s death, twenty-seven books were found in a cardboard box at Harry’s house. None of them were Embers but they were all published by Corinth. Once I got the titles I started hunting for the books, so I could see if they actually were 27 of Harry’s missing books.

Years before this I had obtained Howard Whittington's address from the writer and book dealer Lynn Munroe. Lynn knew I was writing about Harry and I’d used him as a resource. Among other things, Munroe is the authority on Corinth. It was awkward not to fill him in on the whole picture. Finally I shared my research in an email.

I had a handful of books using the pseudonym Curt Colman. There were just a couple more Colman books published by Corinth so we made the assumption that all the Colmans were Harry. I read them, and this was true. Lynn also came up with Passion Hangover, the American version of Like Mink Like Murder, and Flesh Snare, which was the rewrite of To Find Cora (or, alternately, Cora is a Nympho). It was a lot of fun to have someone else with whom I could discuss the search, and whenever I slowed, Lynn seemed to be there with new titles for me to consider. There were several “possible” Whittington novels that I rejected.

PS: How about those short stories Whittington wrote? Before this, I've never heard anyone mention them, only his novels, and the occasional reference to his True Crime pieces. Was he as prolific with short stories as he was with novels? Are they also crime- and noir-related?

DLW: I have 54 of Harry's shorter pieces, and there are probably another 20 or 30 pieces I don't have. This does not include the early, unpublished writing, which was destroyed. In the beginning Harry wrote private detective serials for King Features with the character Pat Raffigan. I have several stories but would like to find copies of the rest of them. It would be fun to put together a collection of the Raffigan stories but I have yet to find a market for it.

Harry wrote crime shorts and often he returned to them for the plots and themes of his novels. He also wrote in other fiction categories: western, romance, and true crime shorts. I've discovered a couple of the romance stories but they were usually published without a byline, so I can't even find a pseudonym for this group. I have several of the true detective stories but have yet to read them. I'm keeping the short stories at arm's length, for now, in case I have the opportunity to prepare them as a collection in the future. Harry’s title was going to be Why A Writer?

For Harry, “compulsive” may be a better description than “prolific,” and I don't think he was alone in this. Once his career got going Harry wrote almost all the time. Whatever the problems in his life – and most of them were economic – he looked to writing as the solution.

PS: That's a great title for a collection. And I'm sure it is a question Whittington must have asked himself many times. What are your thoughts on why he wasn't able to weather changes in the market in the 1960s like other crime writers (such as Ed McBain)? Did he ever try and publish outside the realm of paperback originals?

DLW: Harry was by no means unique in his difficulty surviving as a writer in the early sixties. It's just like today, in that everyone's personal finances are affected by the overall economy, and Harry had the added problem of having financed an unsuccessful film, Face of the Phantom, that put him into debt. Harry took his reverses personally. He wasn't really close enough to the marketplace or to a lot of other writers to be philosophical about it. He did, in fact, drop out of the writing scene for a while, but again, he was not unique in this. He was, however, near the top of the game, so when he fell, he had further to go. He adjusted in the same way that many others did: instead of writing suspense and adventure for an adult male audience he tried writing for children, including a hardback book for children based on the Bonanza series. He wrote several stories for the Man From U.N.C.L.E. digest. He wrote for women, with a female pseudonym, and he wrote the sexually themed novels. During this time he was also trying to write screenplays.

You use Evan Hunter as an example but he was writing for Corinth, just as Harry was, and using several pseudonyms. One strategy was to produce series characters, and this just did not work for Harry. He even tried this with Corinth, and was not successful.

PS: Since you've spent so much time reading and writing about Whittington, what was it that initially attracted you to his writing?

DLW: I’d been doing stories for a news and crime-fiction digest called Mystery, interviews with Burnett, Latimer, and John Bright (the screenwriter of Public Enemy), with more planned. Then the magazine folded. I had faith in the effort, and I kept going. In 1983 my wife and I drove around the U.S. in a VW bus so I could interview crime fiction writers. I knew of Whittington – I wrote for “The West Coast Review of Books” (which had praised his later historical novels) but I had never read his books. Later, I began reading him and I really loved his work – the plotting, the pace, just the way he wrote a sentence – and I regretted that I had not tried to contact him in Florida. I had the feeling that he would have appreciated the attention, and it might have made a difference in how he felt about his career. To a degree, I'm trying to make up for that now.

PS: Has your research for this Stark House anthology changed your impression?

DLW: After working with Harry's manuscripts, looking through his papers, and getting to know his family, I feel no different about those words on the page. They just seem right to me. Maybe it's a guilty pleasure. Sometimes, I think, just because of the haste with which he wrote, there are what I would consider mistakes in his sentences. After revising Like Mink Like Murder I went back again and just looked at those sentences, and made little fixes wherever I thought I could make an improvement, to keep the flow of the words and the action going, taking out anything that would slow Harry’s narrative.

I figure I'm connected to Harry for the rest of my life, as an authority and a friend. This might include a documentary or a graphic novel, but at the least I want to complete one more essay that deals with Harry's efforts as a filmmaker. I'm an intuitive sort, and I feel that between Harry's writing and myself – we just sort of found one another. In a way, I feel that I got the cancer because I was not doing what I should have been doing with my life. I shouldn’t have been working in the sun as a house painter. I also had (and still have) a rubber stamp business, first Hard-Boiled Rubber and then Ready-Made Rubber. I had great collaborations and a wonderful base of customers, but I felt guilty about getting away from writing. Now I feel that working on these books is an antidote to the cancer that nearly killed me. I’m betting that submerging myself in crime fiction can be as healthful as laughter – so take that, Norman Cousins. Rational or irrational, however that sounds, I plan to keep going.

I’m four years out from my diagnosis and I’ve worked on six books for Stark House. Four years without a recurrence is considered to be a “cure”, but I continue my checkups, the next coming up soon. As you may guess, I get a little nervous when it’s time for my scans. I hope everyone reading this will use sun screen, wear hats, and have periodic skin checks with a dermatologist. Early detection is what can save your life. Melanoma used to be rare. Now the incidence of Melanoma is increasing faster than any other form of cancer.

Reading Harry today is just as exciting as when I read my first Whittington book. I get away from him, for other efforts, but I'm always happy to return. Harry left us a lot of stories.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Remember your priorities, dammit."

September? Gone already? Almost end of week 1 of October? I haven't abandoned Pulp Serenade, or replaced it with a new love. Instead, I've fallen into that black hole known as "Graduate School." I am at NYU pursuing my Master's Degree in Cinema Studies. I certainly appreciate the opportunity I have been given, but it hasn't been an easy transition - and the voluminous amount of assigned readings hasn't helped any, either. Last month I didn't pick up a novel or short story to read at all. I read lots and lots about narratology, though my understanding of it is still very vague. I think it is time to leave well enough alone. (Something tells me it will pop up again next semester in Film Theory, however.)

Then one day I received a package in the mail from Jed Ayres over at Hardboiled Wonderland. I won a contest, which I was super psyched about, becaues I can't remember the last time I won something, and definitely nothing as cool as a hardcover of James Ellroy's Destination: Morgue! Inside the book was a handwritten letter, reprinted above (hope you are ok with this, Jed), with four important words:

"Remember your priorities, dammit."

Well, I'm starting to remember.

Also, many thanks to Patti Abbott for checking in with me via email, it was very sweet of her: I am still alive, and am trying to reorganize my life so I still have time for crime fiction and blogging. Two things I miss very much.

A couple of finished interviews coming to you later this week. Also, in the middle of Stark House Press' new collection of W.R. Burnett novels, which is astounding thus far. (Is there any way I can convince my film professors to let me study films written by Burnett??? If any of my teachers are reading this, hint hint...) Plus, this weekend I am taking a break from the academic life and heading to the Hampton's International Film Festival. If I see anything good that is crime-related, I will certainly pass on recommendations.

Ok --- back to work.
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