Friday, November 14, 2014

“’Have you ever thought about doing something serious, like detective fiction?’” Fred Zackel

“’Have you ever thought about doing something serious, like detective fiction?’”
Fred Zackel

(This piece first appeared at January magazine, 23 April 1999.)

            I met Ken Millar in the summer of 1975 at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, the event that author Barnaby Conrad has so wondrously run for all these years. I went to the conference not to meet Millar (a.k.a. Ross Macdonald), but to quit writing.
            I was 29 years old and was giving up. Oh, I had set off five years earlier, determined like every other writer that I was going to produce those words everyone had always been itching to read, only they didn't know it yet.
            In truth, I had sold nothing and I no longer believed anything would sell. But I wanted to quit on a high note, not feel like I had failed. After all, being a writer is like swimming up a waterfall. Nobody is surprised that so many can't do it; we are only surprised that some do succeed.
            I chose the Santa Barbara Writers Conference because it was advertised as being held on the beach at Santa Barbara, at the Miramar Hotel. The Miramar had two bars, two pools, and security guards on little golf carts that went around the bungalows at last call to make sure the drunks got back safely.
            If you're going to quit writing, why not at the Miramar? Why not at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, with its annual crowd of real writers to hobnob with? Ray Bradbury was there, as was Alex Haley, who was then finishing up Roots, and Irwin Shaw, who was now a Rich Man and not a Poor Man, and Maya Angelou and Gay Talese and Charles Schultz and... and Ross Macdonald.
            I had admired Ross Macdonald for his work for years. I can remember the day a college roommate gave me his copy of The Chill and dared me to read a mystery. I read it in a single sitting and was blown away by the intellect that could conceive such a lucid pathway through the maze of human deviousness.
            I was a fan. That was enough.
            And I saw him there at the conference. Ross Macdonald was tall and stately, stoic and gentlemanly. He wore a straw hat; Santa Barbara was hot that summer. He had buttoned the top button of his short-sleeve shirt; he was elderly. He walked deliberately. He looked unapproachable. Until I saw him with other people. His smile was open and flashing; he was generous with his smiles.
            I didn't try to approach him. He was a published novelist. I was from the other side of the universe. The unknown side of that side. Whatever thoughts I had ever had about being a writer -- hell, I was there because I was quitting writing. That anguish was for other people. I didn't feel bad that I wasn't cut out to be a writer, that I had wasted a few years of my life. Hey, I was a child of the 1960s. No loss there.
            One or two days before the conference ended, I got the word from Barnaby Conrad's people that every "student" at the conference was supposed to submit some work they had done. Well, I had nothing substantial with me. Certainly nothing I wanted to show anyone. I hadn't brought any completed stories, any polished poems, anything. What I had were pages of dead-ends, cul-de-sacs of unfinished stories: Evidence I might need to keep my resolve if I lost my courage and thought about giving the writing life another try.
            For some reason -- maybe my latent fear of authority figures -- I looked in the small notebook I always carried to see if there were any miracles I had mislaid. The notebook wasn't much. Inside were a bunch of observations about the nightlife in San Francisco, where I was then living. I had a job as a cab driver; I saw things I never wanted to see. What was written in there were things I didn't want to forget. But no prose pieces. Not even a plot. Not enough for a character sketch. Just a bunch of one-liners about the streets of San Francisco after midnight.
            I could remember my college professor whispering, "If you call it a poem, it's a poem." So I took two dozen of these one-liners and stretched them into a free-form poem, borrowed somebody's typewriter, submitted the poem, and promptly forgot about it.
            The next morning, someone -- I still don't know who -- telephoned my bungalow and said I had to get up, it was 8 a.m., and I had to get over to the convention center. Well, if you wake me up by screaming at me, I get up and never wonder why. Especially when I'd been present at last call the night before, and looked it.
            Everybody was in the convention center. Somebody was announcing the winner of the "poetry contest." And it was me!
            Somebody said I had to come up on stage and read my poem. Somehow I did it. The only face I saw was Ross Macdonald's, and he was staring so intently, I got scared and wished I were elsewhere. I didn't figure he was buffaloed by my poem. I figured I won the poetry prize because everybody else there wrote fiction.
            By 8:30, I was on a stool in the Miramar bar. I was alone.
            Ross Macdonald looked in the bar. I was impressed. This was the closest I had gotten to him in six, seven days. I toasted him with my draft beer, and he came over. He stuck out his hand and I shook it, and he said, "That was a very nice poem you wrote." I was stunned. When I'm stunned, I get as charming as I can be. "Can I buy you a drink?" He scowled and said, "I don't drink before sundown." Oh.
            Then he left.
            While I didn't think I had blown it, I didn't think I had made a very good impression on the writer I most looked up to. But I knew I was just a fan, and he would forget me quickly enough. There's always salvation in anonymity.
            Twenty-four hours later, on the last morning of the conference, I was in the bar again, nursing another of those a.m. drafts, and Ross Macdonald stuck his head in the bar again. He saw me and came over.
            "You look down in the dumps," he said.
            "I have to fly back to San Francisco. My plane leaves in four hours. I have no place to go before then, so I'm just sitting here in the bar at the Miramar."
            He frowned, almost said something, then made up his mind. "Do you need a ride to the airport?"
            "Thank you, sir, but not for four hours."
            Ross Macdonald said, "Why don't you come up to my house for the next four hours, and then I'll give you a ride to the airport?"
            I think I said yes.
            I know I followed him out of the Miramar bar, my suitcase in hand. We walked about a hundred yards to the parking spaces on the road into the Miramar. Two elderly women were there, standing by a compact car.
            Ross Macdonald announced to them, "This is Fred Zackel, who wrote that poem about San Francisco. His flight there leaves in four hours, and he's having difficulty getting out to the airport."
            Then he introduced me to his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar and the other woman with her. "He's on the same flight you are," he told the other woman.
            He told them I could hang with them, and we could all go to the airport together. The two women weren't happy with his generosity, but we all piled into the car. His wife sat behind the wheel, while Ross Macdonald sat beside her. I sat in the back seat. Next to author Eudora Welty.

* * *

            Margaret Millar drove like a bat out of hell.
            She drove a tiny Japanese car, one of those early models that barely held four adults. And she went around curves like the chase at the end of a thriller, and more often than not jumped the curb doing so. She never slowed, either. She went full-bore and flat out.
            She scared me the most when we swung by the Santa Barbara fairgrounds. Honest to God, I didn't think she'd be able to pass a truck changing lanes on the inside before he, too, filled the lane she wanted. But she did it, squeezing through like a teenager in a crowd.
            Ross Macdonald sat beside her. I sat behind him, and Eudora Welty sat on my left. I felt so sorry for her. Every time Margaret Millar took a turn, either Eudora Welty smashed into my shoulder, or I would crash into hers.
            Eudora Welty was not a small woman, but she did appear delicate and fragile. Banging into me must have jarred her as much as getting smacked with a swinging door. And every time I flew into her, I nearly squashed her like a bug.
            We had no seatbelts in those days.
            And nobody said a word the entire way.
            The trip to Santa Barbara's exclusive Hope Ranch neighborhood was over quicker than it should have been.
            We all went inside the Millars' ranch-style house on Esperanza Avenue, the one they had bought with movie money.
            The Millars had dogs -- great German shepherds, for the most part -- and like all true dog lovers, they kept the house safe for galloping hounds. After the handful of dogs told us all how grateful they were to see us, Margaret Millar let them out.
            Over instant coffee I was quizzed about my past, present, and future.
Being quizzed was a terrifying experience. These three writers were brilliant, famous, and successful. I was not. I felt very much out of my league.
            I tugged out a cigarette. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
            All three faces lit up with disapproval.
            "No one smokes inside the house," Ross Macdonald said.
            "Mind if I smoke outside?"
            I went poolside and lit a cigarette.
            I stayed outside longer than I should have. I felt defiant. I had nothing to lose, I thought.
            Back inside, the quizzing began again.
            "I came to the writers conference to quit being a writer," I explained. "In the past five years, I have sold nothing, and I don't believe anything will ever sell."
            The three looked at me as if I was a talking dolphin.
            "Why go to a writers conference to quit writing?"
            "I wanted to go out with no regrets. The Miramar Hotel is on the beach in Santa Barbara, has two pools and two bars, and the security guards drive around after last call in golf carts to pick up the drunks and make sure they get back to their cottages."
            "Read your poem for us," Ross Macdonald said.
            I took it from my binder and read it aloud.
            All three leaned back and contemplated the cosmos.
            When I was done, all three looked at each other and frowned.
            "What kind of writing have you been doing?" Macdonald asked me.
            I said I had been trying to write literary fiction about Midwest farm towns. About people as gray as a winter's sky and hearts as cold as a coffin's touch. About being a stranger in my native land. You know, tedious crap.
            "May we see some of it?"
            I went to my suitcase and unpacked the chunks of paper.
            Each writer took a swatch and read. Then they passed the papers around. I drank black coffee and watched them read. When they were done, all three gave me back my manuscripts, stared at the floor and frowned.
            Finally, Ross Macdonald spoke.
            "Have you ever thought about doing something serious, like detective fiction?"
            I said, "No." In a panic, I said, "I don't know how."
            He said, "I will help you."
            Three of us stared at him.

* * *


Bill Crider said...

This is a great piece. Thanks for reprinting it.

Ronald Tierney said...

Thanks for a great way to start my day.

John C. Boland said...

Wonderful memoir.

Mathew Paust said...

What Bill said. And Eudora Welty, what a wild card.

RJR said...

Zack went on to write one of my favorite P.I. novels, COCAINE AND BLUE EYES.