Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Q & A with Max Allan Collins

What an honor it was for me to interview Award-winning author Max Allan Collins...

Q: What makes Nate Heller different from other (unofficial) PIs?Well, first of all he's very much official, a licensed, traditional private eye. When I wrote TRUE DETECTIVE almost thirty years ago, the idea was to start him out in a small office, right out of Phillip Marlowe -- he even lived in that office -- and then gradually move him up in the world, until he had operatives and eventually an agency with branches in various big cities. A really successful small businessman, ultimately not that small. I spent a whole chapter in the first novel discussing his family history, going back to his grandparents in Germany. He marries, has a son. All things that weren't part of the world of private eyes like Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and Mike Hammer. I wanted him to be very much the traditional PI of literature, but more real. He would bleed, cry, fart, fuck while wearing a condom, and also lie, take bribes and quit cases when they got dangerous. Though the voice comes out of Chandler, chiefly, I set out in TRUE DETECTIVE with the notion of breaking every rule of Chandler's "down these mean streets" code, including despoiling a virgin.

Q: How did you come up with the character?
George Hagenauer, my research associate, had a lot to do with it. Initially I had a much more traditional Marlowe type in mind, who would have quit the Chicago PD over the corruption there. George pointed out that a guy like Heller would get on the force in order to take advantage of the corruption, and that he'd have to have connections to even get on at all, particularly in the Depression. The realities of who Heller would have been in real-life Chicago dictated who he became in the novels.

Q: What's next for you, Heller, Nolan, Quarry and Ms Tree?
I've just completed the novel about Heller and the JFK assassination. I won't be doing a Quarry this year, but I hope to next, and Charles Ardai at Hard Case indicates that should happen -- that would be a book called THE WRONG QUARRY and would pit him against a serial killer. In the meantime, the postponed QUARRY'S EX is about to come out. I love doing those books. Also, I keep kicking around doing a final Nolan novel for Charles, but it hasn't gelled. On the other hand, it looks very likely that a new Ms. Tree graphic novel will happen soon. I am trying to decide whether to pick up where we left off, or re-boot her like I did in the prose novel DEADLY BELOVED, or do a tale where we acknowledge the hiatus between stories and allow her to be older, and do a RETURN OF MS. TREE take.

Q: How do you promote your work?
I don't do enough. I'm not a social networking guy and have to kick myself in the butt to use Facebook. I don't Tweet. I do a weekly update each Tuesday at Sometimes I do book signings, but they aren't as effective as they once were. We are doing a limited book tour for BYE BYE, BABY -- a four-city swing on the West Coast, plus a couple of other key appearances, with one in Chicago at Centuries & Sleuths, a great bookstore. I do try to make sure Internet sites reviewing and discussing my kind of book get access to the novels. I think that's key in this environment.

Q: What are your thoughts on ebooks as a reader AND a writer?
As a reader, I have no interest. If I travelled more, I might have -- my son Nate has one, though he still buys physical books, too. It doesn't suit my needs, or a personality nurtured since childhood by the look and feel and smell of books. As a writer, however, it's just another means of getting my work to readers, and I am fine with that, and will pursue it. I'm part of the Top Suspense Group, a cabal of authors trying to work the e-book market more effectively.

Q: What's your idea about the psychotic sidekick in PI novels like Hawk and Joe Pike?
I was asked about this on a panel and said that my protagonists do their own psychotic dirty work. Parker was and is an important writer in the field, and he made it possible for other writers -- like me -- to write private eye novels when the form might otherwise have died out...he's like Spillane in that regard. But to me the Hawk character is inherently a racist conception -- the black guy who does the white guy's dirty work. And the character itself is lifted from blaxploitation movies. That this aspect of Parker's work had such an impact -- with writers as popular as Mosely and Crais imitating it -- is frankly bizarre to me.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation?
Certainly they will. But they are all variations on Hammett, Chandler and Spillane, who will continue to be read and will continue to be the primary influences. What Parker did well -- this was very smart -- was to take Marlowe and wrap him up in contemporary trappings. Initially, Spenser was a sort of Yuppie P.I., with his cooking and his smart girl friend and the Boston setting. Lehane does what I have tried to do (I don't think I influenced him at all, though), which is to take the PI novel onto a larger landscape and give it some mainstream feel.

Q: Terry Faherty came up with the following question: Is there a future for the PI subgenre in the face of the current competition from cozy mysteries and police procedurals/crime scene investigation procedurals?
The Private Eye isn't going away. The character will evolve with the times, but this figure is as timeless and necessary as the Western hero, and not as rooted in one era as that figure. For me, it was necessary to place Heller in the historical context of the original writers -- the '30s through the early '60s. But the appeal of the lone problem solver is eternal. How necessary the literal P.I. aspect will be to this -- the license, essentially -- I can't predict. But my hunch is, even that will remain.

Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
Are you a Hammett man or Chandler?

And my answer -- despite having been heavily influenced by the first-person approach of Chandler -- is Hammett. Right out of the gate, he created the perfect private eye novel in THE MALTESE FALCON. That gives all of us a goal, something to try to top. And none of us ever will.


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top mystery books said...

Thanks for the interview- good to hear more Ms. Tree, a book I am quite fond of, is coming back. Of course, that may be because I published it!


Dan_Luft said...

I hope that Ms. Tree would continue without a reboot. Reboots are for other writers to do after the creator has left the character.

And I hope to God that Collins and Ardai (or some publisher) will come to an agreement over Nolan. It's not just the character or the heist, but Collins's multiple viewpoint storytelling that makes the Nolan books so good.

Max Allan Collins said...

A couple of quick follow-ups...

First, thank you SONS for this nice interview venue.

Second, I have indeed decided not to reboot MS. TREE, but to pick up in more or less real time, when she's in her forties...and menopause. Bad guys beware.

Third, I have just signed with Perfect Crime to bring out the Nolan novels in uniform editions (save for the first two, BAIT MONEY and BLOOD MONEY, which are available together as TWO FOR THE MONEY from Hard Case Crime).

Fourth, all of the Nate Heller books will be back in print very, very soon...and gradually will be coming out on audio from Brilliance. All of the novels will come out more or less at once. On October 5, a new collection of the complete-to-date short stories, CHICAGO LIGHTNING, will appear from AmazonEncore.

Fifth...hi Deni!