Monday, January 01, 2007

PRO-File: Stephen Marlowe

As you know, Ed, I've been around a long time, and "around" is the operative word. Sold my first short story in 1949, wrote probably a couple of hundred of them, s-f and crime, mostly early in my career. Novels after that. First one published in 1952, just when I entered the army during the Korean War. This--the novel, not the war--was science fiction, but before long I switched over to suspense, before switching much later in my career to what I think are unclassifiable novels combining suspense, fantasy, historical, and anti-historical elements.
It's likely that I did so much genre-wandering because I did so much geographical wandering. Have lost count of how many places I've lived--surely more than a hundred in twenty-odd countries. My older brother, mayor of his hometown and an admirable pillar-of-the-community type, which I obviously am not, once asked me what I was running away from. I tried to explain that "running toward" was more like it, or just plain "searching"--which all writers do, or ought to do. And just what do we search for? Ourselves, probably. Or the perfect story that always lurks somewhere, waiting to be found, if only you know how to find it.
My own favorite among my hardcover suspense novels is probably THE VALKYRIE ENCOUNTER. Among my unclassifiable novels (which publishers insist on calling literary novels: more about this later), it's either THE LIGHTHOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD or THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MIGUEL DE CERVANTES. LIGHTHOUSE is fantasy-suspense about Poe; CERVANTES is fantasy-historical about its eponymous hero.
But, hey, I never forgot my crime novel roots. My latest book in print is a Stark House edition of two of my paperback originals from half a century ago: VIOLENCE IS MY BUSINESS, a Chet Drum thriller that a lot of critics seem to like, and TURN LEFT FOR MURDER, which has special resonance for me because it is in part autobiographical: I, like the protagonist, grew up in a tough neighborhood on the mean streets of pre-World War II Brooklyn.
I've won a couple of awards, one in France for THE MEMOIRS OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, the other here in the States, the PWA life achievement award for my Chet Drum series. The second, as it is awarded by my fellow toilers, has got to be the more gratifying. I wish I could feel more strongly that I deserved it, because only about half my career is in the private-eye genre.
Which brings me to your question about advice to the publishing world. My pet peeve is publishers insisting on genre-ising every novel they publish. For me, as Gertrude Stein almost said, a novel is a novel is a novel. And, when no category quite fits, publishers still insist on genre-ising. Viz, mainstream novel or, worse, that kiss-of-death genre, the
"literary novel."
My work-in-progress defies genre-isation, which is all I'll say about it. My novels often come to me as a first scene and a last line. Then all I have to do is fill in the 98% between. See how easy it is?
The best all-but-forgotten crime novel I know is Stephen Becker's wonderful A COVENANT WITH DEATH. But I guess a lot of publishers these days would--their mistake--call it a literary novel.
The greatest pleasure I've got out of a writing career spanning more than half a century is the endlessly challenging need to wander far and wide in search of experience and then find ways to use it in my work The greatest displeasure? That there's never enough time to both do all the exploring I want to do and write as well as I can. But that's a frustration rather than a displeasure, isn't it?
I've spent as little as four days (!) writing a novel (THE STAR SEEKERS) and as long as two years (THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MIGUEL DE CERVANTES). The latter could well be my favorite among my own works. The former answers your question about how I felt selling my first novel. Actually, it was my second. The first, EARTHBOUND, was a fairly routine experience. Lester del Rey and I had been asked to outline a series of YA science fiction novels for the John C. Winston Company.I was twenty-three at the time. We saved two ideas each for ourselves, and my first went without a hitch, except that I began my Korean War service the day it was published. A few months later I was at a winter training exercise at Camp Drum, where I was temporarily attached to the 82d Airborne. I got a frantic call from my agent: How you coming on the second Winston novel? I'd forgotten all about it and it was due in a week. I spent a weekend telling myself it was impossible. Then on Monday the colonel I worked for, on hearing of my plight, said, "Son, how much are they paying you to write that book?" I told him the advance was a thousand bucks. "Son," he told me, "even the U.S. Army can't stand between you and that kind of money. Go home and write that book." Which I did--by the end of the week. I have never had the courage to read it, even though the publisher phoned to say good job.
But that was a long time ago. And now? Now I hope to hang around long enough to write a novel or two that will satisfy the critic who always sits perched not quite visible on my shoulder..


Unknown said...

This was great. And never knew that those Winston novels had been outlined by Marlowe and Del Rey. Very interesting.

Cap'n Bob said...

Wouldn't you love to spend a week at an isolated cabin just listening to this man's stories? Great stuff, Ed, and thanks Mr. Marlowe.