Four years ago I wrote a lengthy piece for this blog about the genesis of John D MacDonald’s most famous creation, Travis McGee. The primary research tool for that article — which I called “The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee” — was a 1964 essay MacDonald wrote for the magazine The Writer titled “How To Live With a Hero,” where he recalled the step by step process of creating the character and the series. Published in September of that year, “How To Live With a Hero” saw print only a few months after the first three McGee’s hit the stands and a month before the fourth entry arrived.
At that early point in the life of McGee it was too early to tell if MacDonald could sustain the series beyond the handful of titles he had published or had already written and were waiting in the wings. He was philosophical about the possibility of failure, claiming that after writing more than a million-and-a-quarter words of McGee at least he had “learned just that much more about my profession, learned skills and attitudes and solutions which will inevitably be valuable in other areas.” But, as we all know by now, McGee was a success beyond the imagination of both the writer himself and his publishers. The fact that we are still reading him, writing about him and waiting patiently while a major film version of one of the novels is produced, is a testament to that success. In my own case (which admittedly is not the best example) I can honestly state that I have completely lost track of the number of times I have re-read the series, but I think ten would be a conservative figure.
Fast forward to 1983 and McGee was as established as any series hero could be, at least for one in print. Beginning with entry number 15 (Turquoise) the books were published in hardcover and beginning with 16 they unfailingly appeared in the Best Seller lists of the day. Number 20 had appeared the year before and the author had signed a contract to write two more titles in the series. (Of course he only wrote one more before he died. For the few bits of information known about that final, never-written, McGee, see my piece titled A Black Border for McGee.) In August a college professor who was writing an article about private detectives wrote MacDonald, asking the author what it was about the type of character in general, and McGee in particular, that made it interesting for MacDonald to continue writing these books. A month later JDM answered him and his response was printed in the JDM Bibliophile.
First, I think it important to note that there are perhaps thirty published attempts at a continuing series hero for every one that manages to endure. The ones that endure meet certain ancient prerequisites for the mythic hero. One must not know too much about his past. Just a hint here and there of past deeds of greatness. He must be an honorable man without being a prig, moral without pretense to sainthood, brave without being a damned fool. And he must be in opposition to the authority of his times. A loner. Most of all he should be likeable, with the ability to scoff at his own pretensions.
The writers most likely to stumble upon that useful pattern are the ones reasonably well educated who consciously or unconsciously borrow from the writings about the mythic heroes of the past. People of all times have much the same tastes in heroes.
Now to take it from the reader’s point of view – the reader brings to the reading of a new book about his friend a whole fabric of past association. He knows the man. He does not have to work his way very warily into a book, wondering if he is going to like this new dude, if the man is going to do the right things at the right time. If he wins too big, the hero is too heroic. If he loses too much, he is depressing. Even in the anticipation of the events which have not yet unfolded in the new book, the reader has a sense of familiarity with what will probably happen – not the specifics, but the general outline of trial, error and conflict.
Now back to the writer’s point of view. I have done twenty books about Travis McGee and I am under contract to do two more. If there will be any more after twenty-two, I do not know. It is restricting and difficult to work in the first-person mode. One cannot cheat. Everything must be seen, appraised, evaluated through the eyes of McGee. This keeps the writer out of the hearts and minds of the other characters. As a novelist I get a great deal more creative satisfaction out of doing such novels as Condominium, The Last One Left, The End of the Night, Slam the Big Door and the upcoming One More Sunday, which Knopf will publish in May.
The second distressful aspect of writing the McGee books is the chore of maintaining freshness while dealing with a fairly rigid structure. One is involved in a folk dance which must necessarily be concerned with a limited number of ingredients. They must be arranged in a way which is genuinely fresh, not a simulated freshness. In other words, I must enjoy what I am writing, and not give an imitation of enjoyment.
On the other side of the ledger, I like McGee and I like Meyer, and I have spent more time with them than I have with any other friend I know. Consequently, when I try to force them to do and to say things that are not within their characters as they have been drawn, then they turn puppety, and the structure of the book sags. I know in my gut when this is happening and so I have to then go back and identify the place or places where I pushed them into uncharacteristic behavior, and scrap everything that happened after that deviation, then give them a chance to act like themselves-which they are ever anxious to do.
If I force them into contrivance, they not only disappoint me by making my book sag, they disappoint the reader. “What the hell happened to McGee?” they ask in angry letters.
I believe that series characters, after three or four successful books founder because the author becomes restive working within that framework and tries to alter the basic structure – the way 007 was screwed up by a change of viewpoint in one of the later books. Some writers try to add new components that do not belong in the genre – political opinions, science fiction and fantasy, lady or tiger endings. One or two bummers and you are out of business, just like the movies.
It would be less than honest to leave out the money part. The money part of a successful series is nice. It enables me to live in the style to which Travis McGee is accustomed. But, beyond sustenance, I have never written for money alone. I have written to please myself, and would keep on doing it even if there were no markets left at all. The only change would be that I would probably do less of McGee and more of the multi-viewpoint novel. Aiming at the money is the primary way of creating a weak book.
If you haven’t yet visited The Trap of Solid Gold—the best JDM blog online—get over there now. Just click here.