Sunday, September 16, 2012

Judy Rohrig on John D. MacDonald

The Green Ripper.JPG

There's been a lot of talk about John D. MacDonald on the blogs lately. Here's Judi Rohrig's take from 2006.


Introduce yourself as a writer, and then brace yourself for the obvious first question. Where do you get your ideas?

Not why on earth would you be idiot enough to waste all those hours one-on-one with a keyboard/pen and paper when you could be playing basketball, knitting, watching TV, listening to ambulance runs on the radio, petting the cat, or (insert -ing action-word here followed by noun)?

The better question would be where "don't" ideas come from?

One of my favorite writers is John D. MacDonald. Dean Koontz turned me on to him. (In fact, I blame Koontz for all the hours I've spent with the pens drippings from John D., Ed Gorman, Joe Lansdale, Norman Partridge, and James M. Cain.) Koontz -- in his biography -- claimed MacDonald's writing had a profound effect on his own storytelling.

MacDonald obviously plucked his ideas from life. His is the eye focused well on the 50s and 60s, moving from post WWII male-domination mind-set to the burgeoning sexual revolution. Sometimes he did this through his continuing character Travis McGee.

"Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn," Carl Hiassen says in his Introduction to a reprint of MacDonald's DEEP BLUE GOOD-BYE. "Every McGee saga guarantees such splendidly mordant commentary. The customary targets are greedhead developers, crooked politicians, chamber-of-commerce flacks, and the cold-hearted scammers who flock like buzzards to the Sunshine State. For John D. MacDonald, these were not just useful fictional villains; they were villains of real life."

Inspiration? Where is it not?

Yet even the master had his walls. It was said John D. would begin typing somebody else's story word for word until his own story took form in his mind. Whatever stokes the creative fires.

Every writer would well to study MacDonald's way with words. The Late Richard Laymon thought so. In fact, he shared his own joy at reading John D.'s stories several years ago in Baltimore with some young writers gathered in Brian Keene's living room during KeeneCon 2000, the precursor to the HorrorFind Weekends.

Laymon wasn't alone in his feelings for MacDonald. Most every good writer I know readily names a favorite MacDonald title. Joe Lansdale claimed SOFT TOUCH as his favorite; Ed Gorman named DEAD LOW TIDE. Koontz offers out SLAM THE BIG DOOR; CRY HARD, CRY FAST; LAST ONE LEFT, and THE END OF THE NIGHT. Add to that list Dallas Mayr (Jack Ketchum), Jay Clarke (Michael Slade), the late Ian Fleming, and scads of others. And don't forget to include Stephen King on that list.

King has said that MacDonald was "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller."

What can be learned from John D. MacDonald is.. well, most everything: style, plot, character, description, suspense, location, politics, tenderness, and capturing much like a photographer, a period of time. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said: "To diggers a thousand years from now... the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."

MacDonald zeroed in on Florida at a time when the place was being mined for its riches: its lush paradise of clear water, sandy beaches, and plenty of warmth year round. And yet for every manatee slipping through sparkling waters, John D. held up Lysol-pungent backwater motels, stiletto-heeled Trixies, and furtive-eyed, underhanded operators. The seamy side, the lost side of paradise exposed on those sandy beaches.

Even his hero, Travis McGee, was eventually unleashed, revealing his full unbridled torrent of personal and most savage revenge in THE GREEN RIPPER. The novel won both awards for such a well-told story and scorn for its violence. Many fans claimed Trav would never had acted like that. I trust the author knew precisely what he was doing.

But this is about ideas, and John D. was all about that. Seeds of birth for THE EXCUTIONER, which eventually was renamed CAPE FEAR, came from another writer's taunt that John D. couldn't write a bestseller or a story that would become a film. He dashed those notions in one work.

But really, why do people want to know where your ideas come from? Writing is creating, and "creation" remains mysterious. Or… they think they want to write. Fame and fortune and all that.

John D. MacDonald did a truly wonderful job of handling that hot potato as he offered in his Introduction to Stephen King's NIGHT SHIFT:

"I am often given the big smiling handshake at parties (which I avoid attending whenever possible) by someone who then, with an air of gleeful conspiracy, will say, 'You know, I've always wanted to write.' I used to try to be polite. These days I reply with the same jubilant excitement: 'You know, I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon.'"

You may try that answer on for size, though please remember that most people aren't being snarky. They actually might envy you for entering where they fear to tread.

Seek and find stories by John D. MacDonald. You won't regret it. In fact, you just might be inspired. Reading does that.

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