My epic project of cleaning out the basement recently turned up an item that might be of interest to JDM and McGee fans.
Sometime in the ’90s, Writer’s Digest magazine published a special edition that was called The Basics of Writing and Selling Mystery and Suspense. Most of it was comprised of mystery/suspense how-to articles. But a couple of august masters of mystery were interviewed. One was P.D. James. The other was our boy, JDM—who had passed away several years earlier. The interview is by Ed Hirshberg (author of a JDM biography, simply titled John D. MacDonald) and was originally published in 1979.
In the article, JDM and Hirshberg cover the author’s beginnings as a professional writer, his taste in literature, the genesis of McGee, his work methods, and a lot more.
This is what JDM has to say about learning his craft.
After I got out of the service, I really worked, for the first time in my life. Really. Eighty-hour weeks. I turned out 800,000 unsalable words in four months. That’s the equivalent of ten novels. And I must tell you that a lot of those words were really dreadful. I kept 30 to 35 stories in the mail at all times… I’d send them out to an average of ten potential markets before retiring them. Thank God there were lots and lots of magazines then. I learned my trade in those four months, because you can’t hope to do the equivalent of ten novels without learning a great deal about writing.
Here’s JDM on writers who influenced him, or not.
I think that when you get into relationships with other writers, who influenced you and that sort of thing, that’s kind of an academic sort of reflex. I wouldn’t be such an ass as to say that I wasn’t influenced by anybody, but the thing is this: If you have read 10,000 books you are going to be influenced in your choice in the sense that you are going to learn which kind of book tends to please you most. I read everything I could find by Hammett, Chandler, Poe, Dickens, Collins, Doyle, Conrad, Stevenson, Georges Simenon, Ferdinand Seline, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Alex Woolcott, Jack London, Marquand. I don’t have to continue the list much further to make the point I want I make, which is this: I discovered along the way that certain aspects had to be present in books in order for me to enjoy them
First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people I read about to be in difficulties—emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they’re finding their way out of these difficulties.
Second, I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief. I do not want him stepping in and making me aware of the fact that I am reading a book. I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer’s devising.
Next, I want him to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing. And I like an attitude of wryness, realism, the sense of inevitability.
I’m pretty sure that successfully writing and selling novels is just as hard now as it was in JDM’s heyday. But here’s his advice for wannabe novelists from the late ’70s.
Most beginners think that writing is a quick ticket to some kind of celebrity status, to broads and talk shows. Those with that shallow motivation can forget it. Here’s how it goes. Take a person 25 years old. If that person has not read a minimum of three books a week since he or she was ten years old, or 2,340 books—comic books not counted—and if he or she is not still reading at that pace or preferably, at a greater pace, then forget it. If he or she is not willing to commit one million words to paper—ten medium-long novels—without much hope of ever selling one word, in the process of learning this trade, then forget it.
And if he or she can be discouraged by anyone in this world from continuing to write, write, write—then forget it.
I think, perhaps, that the mathematics of successful novel-writing has changed since JDM’s day, now that anyone can upload a Word document and photo to Kindle and have an e-book a short time later. And writing ten books remains a great education for a writer. But it’s that last bit that’s most important. If anyone can discourage you, you have no business even trying.
Here’s a PDF of the scanned pages of JDM’s Writer’s Digest interview for those who are interested: