John D. MacDonald…and Me

John D. MacDonald

This is the 100th anniversary year of the birth of John D. MacDonald, Florida’s favorite novelist. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune (JDM’s hometown paper) asked a bunch of writers — Stephen King, Lee Child, Jeff Deaver, Dennis Lehane, Heather Graham, among others — to write short articles describing how MacDonald influenced them. Oh, the paper asked me, too. Here’s my piece.

By Paul Levine

“There are no hundred percent heroes.”Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald

It’s flat-out the best opening line in fiction. You can have your “best of times, worst of times.” You can have your “all happy families are alike,” and you can “call me Ishmael,” for all I care. I’ll take John D. MacDonald’s world-weary opening from 1982’s “Cinnamon Skin,” the penultimate Travis McGee novel. The deceptively simple sentence is not merely juicy bait to hook the reader. It encapsulates in six words – SIX WORDS! – the essence of character and the promise of the plot to come.

Cinnamon Skin, John D. MacDonald
The Travis McGee adventure “Cinnamon Skin,” by John D. MacDonald

I never would have become a writer if not for “beach-bum McGee, the big chopped-up, loose-jointed, pale-eyed, wire-haired, walnut-hided rebel…unregimented, unprogrammed, unimpressed.” JDM’s “knight errant” is a man of honor, protector of the weak, nemesis of the corrupt. And yet, he is flawed. He can lose a fight and lose his way, though never straying far from his moral center.

What a blueprint for a fictional hero!

In 1988, I attended the Key West Literary Seminar, which honored MacDonald, who had died two years earlier. His widow, Dorothy, was there to accept the award. We chatted. I told her I was a trial lawyer in Miami and was writing a novel. Told her, too, that my protagonist, “ex-football player, ex-public-defender, ex-a-lot-of-things” Jake Lassiter, owed a lot to Travis McGee. She’d probably heard similar tales at numerous cocktail parties. But she was polite and said she would enjoy reading the book, should it ever see the light of day. Two years later, To Speak for the Dead was published, and I sent a signed copy to her home in Sarasota.

Weeks went by. Then months. No reply.

Late in 1990, I received a fax from Maynard MacDonald, Dorothy and John’s son, who lived in New Zealand. He explained that his mother had passed away the previous year, and he found the book when sorting through her possessions. He had read it. Said he liked the Jake Lassiter character, the mystery, and the Miami setting. And thought his father and mother would have enjoyed the book, too. I was moved and gratified and simultaneously sorry for his loss.

I went on to write nineteen more novels. I titled one of them, The Deep Blue Alibi, an homage to John D. Macdonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. One of the proudest moments in my life came in the mid-1990’s, when I was awarded the John D. MacDonald Award for Florida Fiction.

John D. MacDonald award winners
Elmore Leonard (right) and Paul Levine, first two winners of the John D. MacDonald Florida Fiction Award.

I recently came across Maynard MacDonald’s fax in an old file. It had been printed on that antiquated thermal paper, and the type had disappeared. Fortunately, John D. MacDonald’s words remain bold in my memory. Profound. Witty. Wise.

“We are all comical, touching, slapstick animals, walking on our hind legs, trying to make it a noble journey from womb to tomb, and the people who can’t see it all that way bore the hell out of me.”

If that doesn’t make you want to be a writer, nothing will.

Getting Published: One Author’s Success Story

getting published, la noir

Getting published is hard. Just ask John Schulian, a prize-winning sportswriter and veteran television writer whose first novel, A Better Goodbye, was just released by Tyrus Books. There’s a lesson in his tale that’s not confined to the writing life. Achievement comes with hard work, persistence, an ability to handle rejection and a willingness to accept advice…and did I mention hard work? John is 70 years old, and there’s a lesson in that, too. It’s never too late…unless you let it be.

A Better Goodbye has gotten rave reviews. Here’s a quote from the book jacket: “Set in the sex trade that straddles the worlds of entertainment and crime, the novel is L.A. noir at its most keenly observed. Think Michael Connelly meets Elmore Leonard for a Metro ride from Universal City to Compton.” Oh, that quote…it’s mine. But now, let’s hear from John about the long and winding road of getting published.

By John Schulian

As far as I can tell, I won’t be receiving any prizes for having my first novel published when I am 70. Holding the book in my hands will be reward enough, thank you – that and knowing I’m in the same age bracket Norman Maclean was when he bestowed his classic A River Runs Through It upon us nearly 40 years ago. Every predictable happy adjective applies to me as I go public with my L.A. noir, A Better Goodbye. But if I still resemble a punching bag, it’s because I never realized how long a decade can be until the one I just spent getting hit by rejection after rejection.

They came from every direction, like mosquitoes on a steamy summer night. Some editors instinctively backed away from what one called my “dark tale.” Others were repelled by the haunted ex-boxer, sex-trade sirens, and merciless criminals who populate my novel.

“Unsympathetic,” said one potential buyer, leaving me to wonder how he’d react if I told him what a fine time I had creating them.

The way I’d written my female characters, meanwhile, became a subject of debate. “(Schulian) has writing chops, particularly with the way he writes women,” one editor said. Another chimed in with praise for my soiled heroine’s love of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and “her attitudes toward men.” On the other side of the ledger was the spoilsport who found the ex-prizefighter in my novel “emotionally taut and compelling,” but said my star massage girl “never quite comes alive as a three-dimensional character.”

getting published
John Schulian tells his story of getting published

Mercifully, I managed to avoid what one editor told Vladimir Nabokov while rejecting Lolita: “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Most of my rejections came wrapped in encouragement. I was “terrifically talented” and “keenly observant,” my writing “polished and lively.” But that didn’t make me any less dead in the water at Scribner, Penguin and Putnam. Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, Kensington and Melville House told me thanks but no thanks, too. Then Random House and Soft Skull/Counterpoint joined the chorus. Thomas Dunne, William Morrow, Dutton and Berkeley didn’t bother to respond, but I got the message.

Who Said Getting Published Was Easy?

I was being initiated into a club that has been around since the first editor turned away a writer on behalf of a publishing house. Margaret Mitchell collected 38 rejections before she found a buyer for Gone With the Wind, James Joyce 33 for Dubliners. Even J.K. Rowling struck out a dozen times before someone got smart and snapped up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The showstopper, however, is the 111 rejections that buffeted James Lee Burke’s The Lost Get-Back Boogie in the nine years it went begging. It might be the best novel Burke has written, nominated for a Pulitzer and better than his best Dave Robicheaux mysteries, but it’s still largely unknown and unread.

I feared the worst for A Better Goodbye getting published. Not knowing what else to do, I changed agents. It was either that or self-publish, and the thought of self-publishing pained me. I’ve been a professional writer – newspapers, magazines, Hollywood – since 1970, and I was dead set on finding a publisher for my novel. Whoever it turned out to be might not pay me a lot, but they would pay me.

With that in mind, my new agent took my novel back into the marketplace, zeroing in on a fresh set of editors whether or not they were at publishing houses my first agent had approached. I did my best not to interfere, staying busy by writing short stories and editing anthologies of sports writing. But every time I noticed a new crime novel published by an outfit I’d never heard of, I shot off an email to my new agent. Bless his heart, he never complained.

In 2012, on the same day he told me that Soho Crime, Mulholland Books and Grove had passed, he forwarded an email from Gerry Howard, who wasn’t just an editor at Random House; he was David Foster Wallace’s editor. And a Thomas Pynchon scholar. And the kind of heavyweight I never imagined being interested in A Better Goodbye. But he was interested. There was, he wrote, just one big problem for him: My hero was “too much of a mope for the book’s good.”

It was the smartest, most incisive note I’ve ever received. I rewrote a third of the book on the strength of it, and Gerry Howard liked what I’d done enough to put it in front of Random House’s decision makers. How could they say no to him? Pynchon? David Foster Wallace? Things like that count in the literary world, right?

Genre Counts in Getting Published

It was the marketing people who got me. They said my novel, part crime fiction, part literary fiction, puzzled them. They said they didn’t know how to sell a book like mine. I thought it was their job to figure things like that out, but I must have been misinformed.

getting published cover
The long road to getting published: “A Better Goodbye”

My agent resumed knocking on doors and I began clearing space in the desk drawer where my novel would likely stay until it turned to dust. I didn’t even think about it much anymore. And then in March – on the 23rd, a day that should be a national holiday – my agent called with not one but two offers to publish A Better Goodbye.

I took the offer from Tyrus Books. They had published muscular crime fiction by Craig McDonald and Scott Weddle and brought my friend Robert Ward’s stunning blue-collar novel Red Baker back into print. As soon as I came aboard, the lead foots from Tyrus stomped on the gas. They wanted to publish my novel right after Thanksgiving, which meant a lot of work in a hurry – writing a new top for an early chapter and a completely different final chapter; combing the manuscript again and again for typos, misspellings and graceless sentences; arranging for publicity; having a website built; putting in days at the computer so long I thought my eyes would melt.

But Ben LeRoy, who runs Tyrus, called my novel “great” the first time we talked on the phone, and that was enough for me even if he lays the same praise on all his other writers. As anyone who reads my book can attest, there are happy endings and then there are happy endings. This one suits me just fine.

(A Better Goodbye is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio formats).

“ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE” Ruined My Trip

All the Light We Cannot See

By Paul Levine

Anthony Doerr ruined my vacation. He also destroyed the confidence of blossoming writers and set an impossibly high standard for other novelists.

What’s the matter, Tony? Winning the Pulitzer wasn’t enough?

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE author
Anthony Doerr, author of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr is the author of All the Light We Cannot See, the lyrical, compassionate, hauntingly gorgeous novel that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

And it’s kept me indoors on vacation. Fleeing the Miami heat and humidity, my wife Marcia and I escaped to Boulder, CO. My intentions were sincere. I’d hike, bike, sample the local brews. But instead of enjoying the glorious Colorado outdoors, I’ve been hunkered down on the porch, immersed in All the Light We Cannot See, reading and re-reading many of its elegant passages.

“All the Light We Cannot See” an Epic Tale

The novel is an epic masterpiece of fate and love, myth and imagination, humanity and inhumanity, tenderness and cruelty, and what happens to dreamers during the utter insanity of war. It’s the story of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy and how they’re destined to come together during the darkest of times. Indeed, it’s a novel of light and darkness.

All the Light We Cannot See
“All the Light We Cannot See” is a Masterpiece.

The portrait of 1940 Paris, on the eve of war, rings true. SPOILER ALERT: Germany invades France. SECOND SPOILER: The French put up as much resistance as an éclair to a butcher’s knife.

All the Light We Cannot See overflows with melodic phrases, magical imagery and dazzling wordplay. Of the blind girl who learns to navigate the streets from scale models lovingly built by her father: “She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

Most writers struggle to describe characters’ voices in original ways. Not Doerr, who floored me with this: “His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”

There is even a rumination on the possibility of life after death. In less than a page, the author posits a theory more persuasive than a thousand Sunday sermons. HINT: Souls travel on electromagnetic waves.

Oh, the Damage to Writers’ Fragile Egos!

So here I sit – on the front porch – entranced as I finish this unforgettable novel. But I complain not just on my behalf. Consider the young writers studying their craft at Stanford, Iowa, and the back booths of countless Starbucks. Does Doerr comprehend the fragility of their egos? The plenitude of their neuroses? Even without this daunting book, they fear their work will just add to the tsunami of swill, the endless tide of mediocrity pouring from laser printers and overflowing publishing platforms.

So, yes, I blame Doerr for nipping the buds of blossoming writers. And what about the environmental damage? The hardcover I purchased is from the book’s 37th printing. That’s a lot of felled trees, Mr. Doerr. Consider that, too, the next time you sit down to work your literary magic.

Paul Levine

Paul Levine’s “Bum Rap” is available in trade paperback, ebook and audio.

Carl Hiaasen Tricked Me Into a New Career

Carl Hiaasen novel

By Paul Levine

I blame Carl Hiaasen.

Let me explain.

It was 1986. I was a partner in the Miami office of a mammoth law firm with offices from Philadelphia to Tokyo. I specialized in “complex civil litigation.” Upside: Financial security. Downside: Boring work.

Even worse than the daily tedium, I’d abandoned my true self. Exhibit A: In college during Vietnam, I protested against Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm. Now, the law firm put me in charge of all asbestos cases. Defending the manufacturer, a company with a nasty habit of hiding evidence.

I was a wreck, filled with self-loathing. Then I read Hiaasen’s “Tourist Season.” In his first solo novel, Hiaasen told a hilarious story with powerful underlying themes about greed, the environment, and the destruction of Florida.

Carl Hiaasen and Tourist Season
“Tourist Season” by Carl Hiaasen Changed My Life

I knew Hiaasen’s work from his Miami Herald column where he roasted public officials for their idiotic behavior. And now this! A satiric, darkly comedic novel in which a deranged newspaper columnist kills tourists in bizarre ways in order to stem runaway population growth and the and condo-ization of Florida. (Actually, I doubt that Hiaasen considered the columnist deranged. Heroic, maybe.)

I loved “Tourist Season” and decided I wanted to write novels. What gave me the confidence to even try?

Because Carl Hiaasen made it look so damn easy!

The pages flowed as naturally as a mountain stream over polished rocks. You never saw the puppeteer’s wires maneuvering the characters. You never heard the writer’s keyboard clacking behind the dialogue. I was reminded of Spencer Tracy’s line: “Never let them catch you acting.” Carl Hiaasen never let you catch him writing.

So, I said, “I can do that.” After all, I was an expert at complex litigation. How hard could it be to tell a simple story? Obviously, I knew nothing of three-act structure, point-of-view, plotting, plot twists, and dialogue. I’d never taken a writing course or de-constructed a novel to see how the magic came to be.

Thankfully, I had read a bit.

Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald

Raymond Chandler knocked me sideways with his hard-boiled wordplay. “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

Dashiell Hammett’s dialogue taught me about sturdy protagonists: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”

And John D. MacDonald showed that a protagonist can be flawed: “There are no hundred percent heroes.”

Soon, I discovered that Hiaasen had tricked me. It wasn’t easy!

Still, in 1988, two years after reading “Tourist Season,” I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” which introduced Jake Lassiter, a linebacker-turned-lawyer with a hard bark and a tender heart. Lassiter owes a debt to Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald…and Hiaasen.

I Quit the Law; Carl Hiaasen is to Blame!

I resigned my law firm partnership. No more long lunches of rare tenderloin and stone crabs at the Banker’s Club. I was a full-time writer. Except for a detour to Hollywood to write for CBS, I’ve made my life as a novelist ever since.

Carl Hiaasen 2015
Paul Levine and Carl Hiaasen, 2015

I’ve lived through the giddy days of sizable hardcover runs and dandy foreign deals, then the consolidation and shrinkage of mainstream publishing. I’ve written books on spec that didn’t sell and suffered the sleepless nights that accompany fear of failure. Then came electronic publishing and the miraculous resurrection of my long out-of-print work, including “To Speak for the Dead.” This month marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s hardcover publication. Amazingly, “…Dead” has been one of the top five bestselling legal thrillers all summer, at one point hitting number two in the Amazon Kindle Store, behind only my latest, “Bum Rap.”

There Should Be a Pulitzer Prize for Titles

I still read Carl Hiaasen. Even his titles make me smile. “Bad Monkey.” “Sick Puppy.” “Strip Tease.” “Skinny Dip.”

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
“Skinny Dip” by Carl Hiaasen

I continue to hone my craft. I take my time, paring down my chapters, my paragraphs, my sentences, producing a book every two years. That’s right, Carl Hiaasen. I’m still slogging away, working hard to make it look easy. And I don’t miss those Banker’s Club lunches. But just the same, you tricked me…into a career I love.

Paul Levine

“Bum Rap” is available in trade paperback, ebook and audio.

(This originally appeared in “The Third Degree,” a publication of the Mystery Writers of America).

Best Books Ever…My List or Yours?

"Rabbit, Run" tops my best book list

By Paul Levine

A “Best Books” list is inherently flawed.  Just as with “best teams” or “best movies” or “best pizza,” beauty is in the eye of the blogger.

A meme has been spreading through Facebook — as memes are inclined to do — asking people to name the ten best books they’ve ever read.  Or the ten “most influential.”  Or the ten that have “stayed with you.”

Using those standards, two of my choices were easy. Without these books — both Florida novels I’ll discuss below — I never would have become a writer. I wouldn’t have sneaked home from the law office to secretly write a spec manuscript that became “To Speak for the Dead.” That’s right. I’d still be wearing fancy suits, billing time at enormous rates, and eating stone crabs at the Banker’s Club instead of working in my underwear all day at home with a can of tuna for lunch!

Let’s admit it.  Any best books list is intensely personal and changes over time. When I was a teenager, I was mesmerized by “The Fires of Spring,” by James A. Michener, a coming-of-age novel based on the author’s impoverished childhood. I haven’t gone back to the book, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t find a spot on my best books list. And in fact…it hasn’t. Instead, I chose “Back Roads” by Tawni O’Dell, the least known author on my list. It’s a heartrending coming-of-age novel set in the slag heap poverty of rural Pennsylvania.

My Best Books List

To ease the task of compiling my best books list, I chose only fiction. Even then, I could only pare the titles to an even dozen.

1. RABBIT, RUN by John Updike.
2. FAREWELL, MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler
3. BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe
4. PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turow
5. BACK ROADS by Tawni O’Dell
6. MISERY by Stephen King
7. ANATOMY OF A MURDER by Robert Traver (John Voelker)
8. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck
9. THE LOCK ARTIST by Steve Hamilton
10. GORKY PARK by Martin Cruz Smith
11. TOURIST SEASON by Carl Hiaasen
12. THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY by John D. MacDonald

Breaking Down the Best Books List

I was in my 20’s when I read “Rabbit, Run” about the angst of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who was my age and living not far from my hometown. Updike, Michener, and I were all raised in small Eastern Pennsylvania towns.  (That is the only time you will see us mentioned in the same sentence. Tawni O’Dell and John D. MacDonald were raised in western Pennsylvania, but I swear I have no geographical bias!)

I could just as easily have chosen two later books chronicling the older Angstrom. “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Rabbit at Rest.” After all, both won Pulitzer Prizes, but I’m sticking with the first of the series.

On the theory that every list should include one book of “Required Reading,” there’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Why not “To Kill a Mockingbird?”  It was listed by too many Facebook friends! But for fans of courtroom fiction — and yes, I know, “Mockingbird” is far more than that — I have three other choices. “Presumed Innocent” and “Anatomy of a Murder” are splendid murder trial sagas, and “Bonfire of the Vanities” has some of the most spectacular and hilarious courtroom scenes ever written.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker brought realism (and skepticism) to the legal thriller in “Anatomy” while Scott Turow’s “Innocent” and Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire” are works by master wordsmiths.  Yes, I’m giving away my biases, as we do when we create lists. I’m a former trial lawyer and the author of legal thrillers, so you have to give me a pass on all the courtroom tales.

My Best Books List Must Include Noir

I’m also an admirer of noir crime fiction, so there had to be a Raymond Chandler novel featuring hard-boiled P.I. Philip Marlowe. That’s where “Farewell, My Lovely” comes in.  I could have chosen “The Big Sleep” or “The Long Goodbye.”  All three are classics.  Who could forget this ditty from “Farewell…?”

“It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

best books, Philip Marlowe
Humphrey Bogart portrayed Philip Marlowe on the screen.

My last two choices, “The Deep Blue Good-By” and “Tourist Season” had profound influence on my life. I never would have written “To Speak for the Dead,” my first novel, without them. John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, a self-described “beach bum” and “salvage consultant,” furnished the inspiration for my “Jake Lassiter” character, an “ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things.” Carl Hiaasen’s ability to bring humor to Florida crime fiction was a revelation. His deceiving ability to make the writing look easy also suckered me into writing that first book.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Paul Levine