Friday, October 09, 2009
MAX ALLAN COLLINS TALKS ABOUT HIS HIT MAN QUARRY
The Max All Collins website and blog new and updated by Max and his son Nathan http://www.maxallancollins.com/blog/
Before we start discussing the history of Quarry how about you telling us how the noted novelist Richard Yates helped you get your MFA at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop?
I lived in Muscatine, Iowa -- still do, as you know -- with a real sense of this famous writing school being in my back yard. In high school I was really into what was then called "black comedy," notably Joseph Heller's CATCH-22 and everything of Vonnegut's. And Vonnegut was teaching up there, so I just naively figured I'd have no trouble getting in. In my high school, I was the writing guy -- had won all sorts of contests, and written plays and so on.
Anyway, to my disappointment, Vonnegut left just before I enrolled at the University of Iowa, as a junior (I went to community college in Muscatine). I'd written three or four crime and spy novels in high school, and now finally had a novel written that I thought was publishable -- MOURN THE LIVING. I had applied for the undergrad workshop, and drove up there and tracked down Yates in his office at the English Philosopy Building. I went in bubbling, intense and enthusiastic, telling him how much I looked forward to being in the class. And I handed him the novel.
He gave me his sorrowful look and said something like, "I'm afraid you're out of luck. This isn't the kind of writing we believe in here."
Deflated beyond words, I slunk back to Muscatine, fairly crushed. Then something wonderful happened: Sunday night, he called me and apologized.
"I've just read your book," he said. "You are very serious about what you do, and more professional than any other applicant, and I owe you an apology for being a snob. I would love to have you in my class."
I hadn't realized had hard it was to get in -- there was just one undergraduate workshop section.
So he became my mentor, reading and working with me on everything I did. He got me my first agent, Knox Burger, who he pitched me to as the next Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Burger, in his typically crusty way, said, "More like W.R. Burnett, but I'll take him on, anyway." I wrote BAIT MONEY, NO CURE FOR DEATH and began QUARRY under Yates' guiding hand. What he taught me was to write from experience, not from other books I'd read, and to view all my characters as "victims" (which was my original title for NO CURE FOR DEATH). Once you realize that everyone is justified from their own point of view, your writing opens up into something more real, even working a pulp vein.
He wrote me and congratulated me when BAIT MONEY sold, and I wish I still had that letter. I do remember he said, "I'm not surprised you've sold it," saying that he still remembered a minor character from MOURN THE LIVING and by name (Sid Tisor), and said that of the thousands of student manuscripts he'd read, that was one of the few things that had stuck with him. He was a fine writer and, to me, a wise, nuturing teacher.
The first novel you sold was about your other series character Nolan,
Bait Money. Were you also thinking about Quarry at the time?
The first novel I sold was BAIT MONEY, the Nolan. Right away I sold NO CURE FOR DEATH after that, though it wound up not being published for a number of years. So Quarry, in a book I called QUARRY (published as THE BROKER), was third to bat, and reflected a lot of thinking on my part about finding something of my own. Nolan was a Richard Stark pastiche, so much so that I got Don Westlake's permission before agreeing to write sequels. And the Mallory character was really a reworking of the standard private eye hero out of Chandler, even if he wasn't literally a P.I.
What inspired Quarry?
I grew up wanting to be a private eye writer, specifically wanting to be Mickey Spillane, but by the late '60s, the P.I. seemed played out and anarchronistic. So my enthusiasm shifted to so-called "crook books."
I was very interested in Westlake's Parker novels but also Jim Thompson, who I started reading in high school around '64, and also W.R. Burnett's ASPHALT JUNGLE and HIGH SIERRA and Horace McCoy's KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE. I think Yates got me thinking about crime fiction as potential literature, and I was aware, early on, of the movement toward taking the genre more seriously. A particular influence was James M. Cain and his first-person criminal heroes, who (as Yates had always said) had less than a full grasp on who and what they really were.
Specifically, as much as I liked the Richard Stark novels, and my own Nolan and Jon characters, I felt the Parker sort of novel had an element of cop out. You are identifying with a bad guy, yes, but Westlake used an almost Hammett-like stingy third-person, which cushioned the reader, and Parker really only killed other criminals. Parker and Stark never really went over a certain line, despite threatening to all the time. I thought, "What if it's not a bank robber? What if it's a hired killer? And what if we are in the first-person, locked in his point of view with nowhere else to go, and no one else to root for?"
My strategy has always been to have Quarry do something fairly terrible very early on, giving the reader the chance to bail. Then the trick is to have Quarry (a) behave at least vaguely like a noir anti-hero thereafter, and (b) encounter a woman who rekindles his humanity. Finally, toward the end of the book, Quarry does something else fairly terrible, and reminds me you just who the hell you've been identifying with.
Did you have a difficult time selling a series about a hit-man?
It was a one-shot. The ending implied Quarry would probably be tracked down and killed. But, of course, when they asked for more, I gave them more -- three more, in the mid-'70s. And it became the first hitman as protagonist series.
Did you have an agent at the time?
Yeah, Burger sold that novel, and that series.
What did you think of the Berkley packaging of the first group of
Lousy. They changed my titles without asking me, the first two anyway. My title QUARRY became THE BROKER, and HIT LIST became THE BROKER'S WIFE, a title that betrayed the book's major surprise. It's like re-titling PSYCHO as THE BOY WHO DRESSED AS HIS MOTHER AND KILLED PEOPLE.
Did you get a lot of letters from readers about Quarry?
Quarry has always generated a fair amount of fan mail. My decision to do another one in the '80s was influenced by how many readers had expressed an interest in the series. I have to say at the time, I thought I'd really come up with something unique. I was disappointed that no one except Jon Breen noticed, and I actually stopped writing for a year or so, if I recall. Just played music professionally.
You must have been happy when Foul Play Press reissued all the Berkley
titles in very slick paperback editions.
The late great and very gracious Louis Wilder was responsible for those. They're lovely. I wish I had a box of them, though -- they go for more than the original printings.
After the Berkley series and the novel Primary Target, Quarry
disappeared for awhile. Did you get tired of him?
I didn't get tired of Quarry, Berkley just didn't ask for more; but I never really pursued doing him again. The problem was that I felt like I had to keep topping myself with the nasty things Quarry did. By the fourth one, THE SLASHER, the series had become primarily black comedy. That element was always there, and quite intentional, but it should be secondary.
Still, Quarry was always one of my favorite characters, probably second only to Nate Heller, and I wrote the occasional short story. One of those, "A Matter of Principal," has been anthogized more than any other story of mine, and led to a short film, a novel and a feature film.
You and Hard Case Crime brought Quarry back in a big way. I'm not alone
in thinking that The First Quarry is not only the finest of the series
but also one of your own finest novel period. You obviously have a good
relationship with Charles Ardai at Hard Case.
Charles is terrific. Sharp and smart and unfailingly pleasant and professional. I can be a problem child and he doesn't mind at all. He understands that Quarry is a labor of love for me, at this point, and appreciates that my fussiness is for a reason.
And now Quarry, under an assumed name, is starring in a motion picture.
Tell us about that.
A young filmmaker, Jeffrey Goodman, discovered the short story, "A Matter of Principal," and for several years hounded me about making a short film out of it, for the festival circuit. I was getting involved in indie film at the same time, and finally said yes to him, if I could write the screenplay and be a producer. The film, which I like very much, did extremely well at festivals, and Jeffrey hired me to write a feature-length version.
I did, and he set about raising the money, while I turned it into a novel for Charles Ardai, who had requested a Quarry. I never have faith that movies will get made, so I figured, "At least it will be a book." That was THE LAST QUARRY. The book reflects my screenplay, the first draft anyway. At the insistence of a producer, who raised a lot of the money, Jeffrey brought in another writer after I'd done two drafts of the screenplay, though I was brought back in to do a polish. The film is very, very good, and Tom Sizemore an excellent Quarry, called Price in the film -- for the same reason Parker is Walker in POINT BLANK -- as as not to grant sequel rights, which is partly why the film is called THE LAST LULLABY.
Jeffrey has done extremely well on the festival circuit, lots of awards and attention, and it had a limited but successful theatrical run, mostly in cities where it had won festivals. A limited edition DVD has just become available. Anybody who likes my stuff at all will like THE LAST LULLABY.
There's a new Quarry on the way. Where does this one find Quarry?
QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE is about to come out. Let me back up -- I did THE LAST QUARRY, fully intending it to be literally the last one. But the reviews were excellent, and it sold well. Many a critic and reader said, "It's a shame Collins can never write another Quarry, having written the final story." I thought -- nobody tells me what I can and can't write. So I came up with THE FIRST QUARRY. What we call in comics an "origin" story.
QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE is a pun title, puns being an obvious weakness of mine, as it takes place midstream in his life and career. In the last two Berkley published Quarrys, I set up a clever premise -- Quarry kills hit men with his clients being their potential victims -- that I didn't get to fully explore. As for the other meaning of the title, let me tell you how I pitched it to Charles (and sold it) in a single word; that word was YOJIMBO. Charles bought it with one word, too: "Cool!"
Has Quarry ever made any comic book appearances?
No. I've been approached. As of now, I don't believe I've ever adapted any of my prose characters to comics. The opposite, however, is the case -- ROAD TO PERDITION led to two prose novels, ROAD TO PURGATORY and ROAD TO PARADISE, and the Ms. Tree comic books became DEADLY BELOVED for Hard Case.
What does the future hold for Quarry? The good news is that you've
contracted for two new Nathan Heller novels. Will you have time for
I will soon write QUARRY'S EX, another mid-stream novel in which we meet Quarry's ex-wife. That's all I know about the story at present. I have at least one more I want to do, called THE WRONG QUARRY. And that might be it. I love doing these, I have way too much being that character...but it's a limited concept, so I should probably cap it.
Of course, if I write that final novel, and somebody says, "It's too bad Collins can't write another," then all bets are off.