Sunday, September 23, 2018

Interview With Maine Author Dick Cass, A Life Ruined by Travis McGee

Another treat today as we talk with Richard J. Cass, author of the Elder Darrow mystery series.
At the end is an essay by Dick on how Travis McGee ruined his life- worth a read.


 Dick contributes to the blog of the Maine Crime Writers, and we meet at many author events.
He's got a new book coming out next month, Burton's Solo, that's sure to please his many fans. And yes, it's available for pre-order.


Let's find out more about him.

Q. So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.
A. This novel, Burton’s Solo, is the third in the Elder Darrow jazz mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who buys a bar in Boston with the idea that being around alcohol all the time will help him stay sober, a kind of homepathic view of a cure. The first two books were very much Elder’s story as he tries to turn a bucket of blood bar into a respectable joint. Burton’s Solo is much more from Dan Burton’s point of view. Burton is the Boston Homicide cop who has become Elder’s friend through the first two books and now has dropped himself into the kind of trouble that could get him thrown off the force. One of the threads in the story is also the connection between illegal immigration and an in-effect slavery, where immigrants are forced to work off passage and are sometimes never able to free themselves from the people who helped them immigrate. So, a little larger canvas than the first two books, which were pretty much straight ahead murder mysteries.

Q. Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?


A. I usually begin with a scene in mind—in this case, I realized early that I was getting more interested in Burton’s character, which I had not developed as much in the earlier books, and I wanted to start him out in a situation that put him in some kind of peril. The first scene drops him into a situation in which his emotions get him in professional trouble and the story flowed from there. I am not usually an outliner, though I will often, three or four drafts in, list the scenes I already have to see if they feel like they’re in the right order and if there are holes. But even that is provisional.

Q. What do you feel is the main theme(s)?
A. Both Burton and Elder Darrow are damaged men who maintain a fragile friendship with each other. Each has his weaknesses and strengths and both are very proud. Neither is good at relationships and their friendship is very tentative. Despite their frailties, they manage to go on, and if there’s a theme to the novels, I think it’s that. How do we cope with our inabilities, and sometimes, with our strengths?

Q. Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?
A. Many readers want to empathize with characters who are human, who don’t leap tall buildings at a single bound or beat up giants with their bare fists. I think it’s important to see believable characters in situations that aren’t as uncommon as we might like to think, and watch them try to find their way out. On the other hand, I also want readers to enjoy the story and the musical framework that the jazz bar provides.

Q. What makes a good book or engaging story?
A. For me, a good book or story has to have, first, characters that are deep enough for me to engage with, to feel empathy or disgust or some emotion for. Without those characters, a story just becomes a moving of pieces around a board according to some plot logic, not my thing. The story has to be there, but I’ll forgive a weaker plot if I can engage with the characters. I also think one of the things that makes fiction interesting is when the reader can learn something new: a landscape, a technology, a jargon—new information carries a little extra freight for me, maybe because I can convince myself I’m doing something useful while I’m being entertained.

Q. Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?
A. I can’t begin to talk about Boston as a city for crime fiction without nodding to Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane, and George V. Higgins. I love Lehane, especially for the working-class voices, which I’m playing with (Burton as a street cop, Elder as a rich Brahmin who would prefer not to be). I love Higgins for his ear for dialogue (see Friends of Eddie Coyle) and Parker for the smart-ass voice of Spenser.

Q. Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
 

A. Storytelling is a little more than entertainment for me, though if you can’t hold the reader you can’t do anything else. But I like to think storytelling can remind us of our humanity, show us how people unlike us think and feel, and lift us to consider themes and issues we might not confront in our usual lives. My goal is, first, to tell a story the reader doesn’t want to leave—then, I want to make the world that has been broken by the crime at the heart of the story whole again. What I hope to do while I’m doing that is get the reader to believe that order is possible, that not all is chaos, and maybe illuminate something for him or her they haven’t thought of.

Q. Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?
A. I once heard a story from J. A. Jance about a reader who told her that he’d read her books to his dying wife to comfort her with stories. I think having that kind of impact would be a pretty good goal. Other than that, I want to keep writing until I can’t and reach as many readers as I can. Typical writer fantasy stuff . . .

Q. Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?
A. I write a first draft very quickly and often a second one. My method is to rewrite the whole book over and over until I feel comfortable with it. Sometimes this means I get to the MEGO stage (My Eyes Glaze Over) with it before it’s as good as it can get, but I’ve been fortunate to have good first readers and editorial help too. It can get to be a grind, but I don’t usually let go of something until I’m happy with it.

Q. Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?
A. Both the first two books had very good editors. Solo Act, the first book, I’d revised so much over the ten years it took me to write it that my editor had very few structural things to say and concentrated more on line editing. (One thing I’m usually pretty confident about by the time I let something loose is whether it hangs together structurally). My editor on In Solo Time, at a different publisher, was much more hands-on, but we had a very cordial relationship and could debate changes without generating any rancor on either side. He was also particularly helpful in helping me rid the manuscript of anachronisms that had crept in: songs that weren’t available until later, historical events, etc. Which had the good result also of anchoring the book better in its time. I also really cherish good thoughtful line editing.

Q. If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?
A. With a piece of writing? I’d try to read empathetically, as a reader as well as another writer. Comment honestly but with compassion. Which is to say, emulate some of the very good teachers I’ve had.

For career advice? Go to dental school, become a veterinarian, don’t count on fiction to make a living. And don’t spend so much time trying to be an author that you aren’t a writer.

Q. Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?
A. Not sure I see the books as films, particularly—they’re less visual than verbal. Audio versions would be pretty good, a chance to play with the voices. I’m too close to the stories to see them change that much, I think.

Q. What's the next step in your writing world?
A. I’m actively looking for an agent for my next project, a Maine-based thriller with political overtones, the protagonist a kind of Travis McGee on the Maine Coast. Also working on a novella-length telling of a story about children and fire. Attending conferences, staying in touch with the crime-writing community, supporting my fellows.

Q. Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
A. Every year, I grow a hundred heads of garlic in my backyard. Next year I’ll be growing hops.

Q. Any other information you'd like to impart?
A. Only that I’m very grateful to the Maine crime writing community for the support we provide each other. And I’m grateful every day I go into my office that I am able to do what I cannot imagine not doing with my time.

Web page: www.rjcassbooks.com

Where to buy: Encircle Publications, your independent bookstore, all major online retailers.

Travis McGee ruined my life. 
 If you don’t know who he is and you like your life the way it is, quit reading now and consider yourself saved.
A tall, wide-shouldered sandy-haired man with cool gray eyes, McGee is the hero of a series of
popular novels – 21 in all, published from 1964-1985 – by the prolific pulp author John D. MacDonald.
Each title is distinguished by a color: The Deep Blue Goodbye, Bright Orange for the Shroud, The Green Ripper.
McGee drives a pickup truck named Miss Agnes, cut down from an old Rolls Royce, and lives in
Bahia Mar, Florida, on a houseboat named The Busted Flush. He named the boat after the poker hand
that backed the bluff that eventually won him the boat. The boat’s owner wanted to wager his Brazilian mistress next, trying to break even, but ever the gentleman, McGee declined.
McGee’s business is salvage, which he interprets broadly as reclaiming anything of value that
anyone has lost, for a fee of half its value. Practically this means he’s the court of last resort for regular people duped by con men, conniving bimbos and corrupt politicians, sometimes all three. He is physically and mentally tough, he knows how to fight, and he was an environmentalist in Florida in an era when that meant dropping your beer bottles in a trash can instead of on the beach.
From the first of his adventures I read, I wanted to be him.
First of all, he lived in Florida, which meant he was warm most of the time. From my second
floor bedroom in Boston, I would look out into the snowstorms and read with disbelief about how, when it got too cold in Florida, he would put on a windbreaker. Where I came from, we wore windbreakers in the warmer months.
He had the world of work in its proper perspective. Congenitally unable to work for the Man
(before that was a concept), he answered questions about his profession by saying he was taking his
retirement in installments. I hadn’t entered the working world, except from the periphery – delivering
political pamphlets for pocket change and stocking the milk cooler at Cumberland Farms part-time – but I knew in my core he was on to something. Even if his income came and went, earning it was in his hands, not at the whim of some faceless face “at corporate.”
Most importantly, he had a code, something arguably more important to boys than men, but it
included behaviors I found easier to swallow than Hemingway’s stoic self-abnegation. McGee’s code
incorporated the usual manly actions and ideals, but it also included pleasure as the birthright of anyone who lives. 
McGee saw himself as knight-errant, seated on a “spavined steed” and tilting at the evil of the
world on behalf of those too weak to mount their own resistance. He held his ideals – honesty, clear
speaking, friendship, generosity – but he was far more brutal to himself when he failed to measure up
than any post-post-modern character is today.
Women wanted him, though sometimes, unbelievably in that Playboy-ideal era, he turned them
down. What a revelation for a teenage boy to hear there were times it was a better part of character to
turn down an offer of sex and pour yourself a glass of Plymouth gin instead.
But Travis McGee’s deepest effect on me was the knowledge you could be a man and own an
introspective nature.  This sounds ridiculous in twenty-first century America, but in 1965, nothing about that was clear. McGee was never afraid to question what he was doing and why, but it never kept him from acting, either. That I could think my thoughts without worrying about my manliness was gold. I read widely as a boy, but McGee was the first male fictional hero I believed in.
No one would call these novels literature, though my friend Tom Doulis makes a pretty good
case that John D. MacDonald stretched the popular conventions wide and wrote fiction that
transcended the genre. I still read the series, start to finish, every few years.

The rhetoric, the attitudes toward women, are very much of a time and they don’t travel well,
but the painstaking dissection and gleeful flaying of corrupt politicians, the satisfying defeats of greedy real estate developers, loud exposures of double-dipping bureaucrats and con men and women could be ripped, as the saying goes, from the headlines today. I would give much to hear McGee’s Harvard trained economist pal Meyer, a reluctant partner in some of his “salvage” operations, expound on the Wall Street of the subprime boom and the subsequent economic collapses.
And the psychology of his characters remains true. McGee, in self-doubt, despite his successes,
never quits. The villains and the supporting casts, both good and evil, are complex believable people – any one of them could be your neighbor. McGee’s truth remains: greed is everywhere, even within us; the strong prey on the weak; and we must resist anything that diminishes people in any way.
But beyond the character and how he helped me learn the ways a man could act, the great
lesson of Travis McGee’s world is that it was a meritocracy, that success is the result of individual effort.

Meyer, McGee’s sidekick, was an independent consulting economist, in great demand from
governments and individuals across the globe. McGee’s competencies were rougher but equally potent: he could out-sly you, beat you in a fist or knife fight, design an elegant punishment for your mistaken apprehension that someone else’s property belonged to you, and always manage to leave a few dollars in the hidey-hole in the Busted Flush to further his ongoing retirement.
Neither man trusted organizations or bureaucracies, or anywhere the ability to get along was
prized over a healthy self-respect. The most heinous villains in the McGee stories are the politicians or business people who use the veil of government or the corporation to hide them while they do their
evil. McGee would set himself adrift in a Viking funeral before he’d plug into a cubicle.
Heady stuff for young people, even now.  So here are the lessons that Travis McGee taught me:
  • Work, but not too hard, at something you care about.
  • Take up the interests of people you can help.
  • Know who you are and who you’re not. 
  • Never forget to take your pleasures. 
  • Live where it’s warm.
You can see what I mean when I say he ruined my life. You could spend your  life trying for ideals
like these, and never even get ahead.   



No comments:

Post a Comment