Want proof that Max Allan Collins works quickly? When I first conceived of doing this interview, it was to center around the publication of his latest collaboration with the late Mickey Spillane, The Big Bang. But, but the time I finished reading that book and prepped some questions, along came an advance copy of his latest Quarry novel in the mail from the kind folks at Hard Case Crime, Quarry’s Ex. Then, I learned that he would appear at the Iowa City Book Festival to screen the film version of his first original (as in non-reprint) HCC Quarry book, The Last Quarry, dubbed “The Last Lullaby” for the big screen. I decided that I had better get this taken care of rather than wait for a lull that likely would never come.
Yes, Collins is fast, and prolific. That wouldn’t matter if he also wasn’t good. These books are eminently readable. I was just reading one of the Chicago University Press reissues of Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark novels about Parker, and Luc Sante in his introduction to one volume wrote that you could read the entire series and never need a bookmark. That’s an apt description of a lot of Collins’ work as well. The Quarry books — and his collaborations with Spillane — are pageturners of the highest order. You want to know what happens next, and you don’t want to wait until tomorrow to find out.
As is often the case with those profiled on this blog, I came late to Collins, taking him for granted (much as I did his close friend, Ed Gorman) because of a sort of reverse local pride: He’s from just up the road in Muscatine, so how good could he be? Once I set aside that backasswards Iowa humble act and picked up one of his books, I was hooked. That was several years ago, and now, as with Gorman, the saving grace is that I have a few dozen books to catch up on.
For those new to Collins, they could do worse than to start with any of the works mentioned above. Quarry’s Ex is out in September, and The Big Bang is out now. The latter is a bracing read, blending Spillane’s proto-tough guy Mike Hammer with a churning plot and a bit of Collins’ humor thrown in to leaven things. It deals with the 60s drug trade and ends with, well, a big bang.
TIRBD: Big Bang was your third collaboration with Mickey Spillane to be published. In what order does it fall in terms of your actual work on the book projects? Does this get any easier, or is the difficulty of each specific to the state in which Spillane left the manuscript?
MAC: This has never been anything but sheer pleasure for me. The three novels so far — Dead Street, The Goliath Bone and The Big Bang — have been published in the order I’ve completed them. Kiss Her Goodbye is finished and will be published next year (Mike Hammer in the ’70s). In some ways Dead Street was the trickiest, because Mickey had a fairly polished manuscript ready for everything but the last three chapters. So, all I did to the front end of the book was a fairly aggressive line edit, because there were some inconsistencies and plot holes that needed tending. Then I had to write three chapters on my own, with just a few notes from Mickey to guide me, and hope the blend was satisfying and not obvious to the reader.
The three Hammer novels I’ve done were in various stages of completion. Goliath Bone was unusual because it was a rough draft of everything but the last couple chapters, and there was a rough draft of the concluding theater scene, as well. But Mickey knew he was in ill health, and worked quickly, and the manuscript was accordingly quite short — maybe 40,000 words. So, I wound up polishing and expanding the early chapters, which made the novel a true collaboration. I love working “inside” Mickey’s work, because I can really get into the groove.
The Big Bang had four or five very long chapters completed, and I expanded these and wove new material in and around Mickey’s so that those chapters lasted deep into the book, probably around chapter eight. That, too, made for a true collaboration, plus I had extensive notes from Mickey on where he was headed, including the shocking ending. The forthcoming Kiss Her Goodbye was unique in that Mickey had two substantial takes on the story, each going in a different direction — the two partial manuscripts had some repetition and some new material, and I wove these into a whole that, again, meant Mickey material went deep into the novel. Again, I had notes to guide me. What made this really different was that I used both directions Mickey travelled — one was a mob plot, the other a diamond robbery plot — and wove them into one story, so that I could maximize Mickey’s writing.
The end result in all cases (except Dead Street, which is more purely Mickey) is a genuine 50/50 collaboration.
You have mentioned that the sales of Big Bang will have a big impact on the future of other Spillane/Collins titles. Is it surprising to you that this is even an issue? Are there hard numbers the sales needs to hit? What happens to those books if you don’t reach that?
I don’t know what sales figures we have to hit, but I am astonished that we haven’t had more attention in the media, although Big Bang has received lots of Internet buzz. I know Goliath Bone was hurt by when it was published — right in the midst of the financial meltdown, when all book sales were off — and I haven’t received any hard data on Big Bang sales. Goliath Bone comes out in mass market paperback next month, and that should be a boost.
There are three unfinished but substantial Hammer novel manuscripts left — Complex 90; Lady, Go Die! and King of the Weeds — and I feel confident someone will want them. There are around four more shorter manuscripts that can become novels if readers are responsive, and I’ve been turning even shorter fragments into short stories — two Hammer shorts have sold to the Strand.
By now everyone knows how prolific you are, but I wonder how you juggle all of your various projects. Are you able to work on many things at once, or do you finish something before you move on to the next? If it’s the former, is it a challenge to move from one voice/tone to another and to keep straight various plot points and such?
I work on one project at a time, with the exception of certain comics projects — monthly comic books (haven’t done one of those in ages), or a graphic novel, as if the case with the in-progress Return to Perdition that DC Vertigo is doing with Terry Beatty drawing. I sort of wait for Terry to need pages, then interrupt whatever novel I’m on and do a batch of ‘em for him.
I find moving from voice to voice, and sometimes medium to medium, keeps me fresh.
You seem to have become the house author at Hard Case Crime (you overtake Lawrence Block with Quarry’s Ex, your sixth; seventh if you include Dead Street with Spillane). What is it about that imprint and working with Charles Ardai that is so appealing?
Charles is a tough editor and he and I have had many, many fights over the books, so anyone who thinks I’m the Hard Case darling doesn’t know the real skinny. But I love being able to do short, tough novels of the sort I did at the start of my career. I think why I’ve become a staple of the line is that I am the only author of the initial group of established mystery names that Charles intended to reprint who was also willing to do new work.
To what do you attribute the resurgent interest in a series that had been on the shelf for nearly 20 years?
Quarry, in my biased opinion, ranks with Heller as my most innovative work. Enough readers appreciated that to have a cult following group up around the novels. I sort of primed the pump by doing another Quarry novel in the ’80s and a few short stories in the ’90s. The character was perfect for Hard Case and made a real connection. Also, we had the short film “A Matter of Principal” and the feature version that followed, “The Last Lullaby,” with me contributing as a screenwriter to both, and that attracted attention, too. I think these are very entertaining books — funny, sexy, violent. I don’t know what more a noir fan could want.
With all of that in the works, you also have your first new Nate Heller book in the pipeline after nearly a decade. What triggers your own renewed interest in characters that leads you to dust them off and check in?
Quarry came back chiefly because of the short film that led to a feature-length screenplay. The Last Quarry is a novelization of my first draft of that screenplay, and simply represents me recycling, frankly. Heller is more an obsession — I consider the Heller saga to be my main contribution to the genre, and potentially my legacy. I stepped away from it unwilling in 2001, and am returning to it eagerly now.
The 10 years away from Heller were productive, though, and probably good for me — the historical “disaster” series, the Perdition prose sequels, Black Hats, Red Sky in Morning, the latter two projects I had long wanted to do but Heller got in the way. Doing all those different lead characters in various time frames in the half dozen disaster books was extremely good experience for me — never too late to grow as a writer.
Despite your prolific nature, you don’t seem to write short fiction. You are a student of the form, however, if your introduction to the Thuglit anthology Blood, Guts & Whiskey is any indication. What do you think of the proliferation of web sites and magazines over the past few years that feature short crime fiction, and why don’t you write more of it?
I am not a short story specialist, but I actually have written quite a few. I’ve even published three or four short story collections. My wife is a real expert at short stories, but she has been concentrating on novels, too. The problem is the shortage of paying markets, and I am endeavoring to make sure writing is my profession and not my hobby. But I’ve published stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and The Strand in recent years, and am always up for an anthology assignment. My only fiction Edgar nomination was for a short story, actually, the Ms. Tree story, “Louise.”
You have a full plate with Hellers, Quarrys, Hammers and everything else you’re doing. Is there room for new ideas to creep in, such as new protagonists or series ideas, or are you able to filter your ideas through existing outlets?
Matt Clemens and I just launched a new series at Kensington — J.C. Harrow, a sort of John Walsh type, in You Can’t Stop Me. We just delivered the second one, No One Will Hear You. These are serial killer thrillers. Barb and I are exploring a second cozy series for the “Barbara Allan” byline — just talk so far. There’s lots of ideas to pursue — ideas are easy for me. But hope to be able to concentrate a lot of my effort and energy in a new group of Nathan Heller novels — Bye Bye, Baby, the Marilyn Monroe one, comes out next July. I’m prepping for the JFK assassination Heller novel right now — soul-crushing research on that one.
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