Tuesday, September 30, 2014

MEET YOU IN IOWA CITY?

I haven't done much road work bookwise, of late—not since a gig in Quebec a while back with Larry Block, Daniel Woodrell, Ian Rankin and some others.

But Thursday through Saturday night I'll be in Iowa City for the Iowa City Book Festival, just in time for the Betimes Books release of the Hector Lassiter series in its entirety for the first time.

(One True Sentence, Forever's Just Pretend, Toros & Torsos, The Great Pretender and Roll the Credits—three of those titles brand new—are now available in a matched set of snazzy looking trade paperbacks, complete with new introductions and reader discussion group questions. Five more titles, new and old, are coming soon).

If you're in the Iowa City area later this week, or already planning to make the scene, I'll be participating in four events. Please drop by and say hello, or catch me at the various venues: I'd love to rap with you about books, writing and, generally, all things literary.


Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014
7:30 p.m. James Ellroy interview and reading
Old BrickJames Ellroy in conversation with Craig McDonald, at Old Brick. Ellroy, the self-proclaimed “Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction,” will read from and discuss his new novel, Perfidia, with fellow novelist McDonald. McDonald has interviewed Ellroy in the past, most notably for his interview collections, Art in the Blood and Rogue Males. Free and open to the public. Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all Iowa City Book Festival events. If you need an accommodation in order to participate in this program, please contact our office at info@cityofliteratureusa.org or 319-887-6100.

Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014
11:30 a.m. Levi Stahl and Craig McDonald
Levi Stahl (editor of the new Donald Westlake non-fiction miscellany, The Getaway Car) and Craig McDonald (Forever’s Just Pretend) read from and discuss their new books.

2:30 p.m. Panel: Loyalty and Betrayal
Iowa City Senior Center
Milan Kundera has asserted that ‘the first betrayal is irreparable. It calls forth a chain reaction of further betrayals, each of which takes us farther and farther away from the point of our original betrayal.’ Loyalties grow out of biology, place of origin, upbringing, affections, nationality, etc.—writers discuss their own loyalties, those that they adhere to and those they betray. Featuring Kinana Issa, Chi Li, Craig McDonald, June Melby, and Franca Treur.

9 p.m. Noir at the Bar
Join us for a free late-night gathering of crime fiction authors reading from their work, talking shop and enjoying drinks with the audience. This special Iowa City Book Festival edition of Noir at the Bar will feature authors:
Scott Phillips - (Hop Alley, 2014; Cottonwood, 2004; The Ice Harvest, 2000)
Jon McGoran - (Deadout: A Thriller, 2014; Drift, 2013)
Craig McDonald - (Forever's Just Pretend, 2014; El Gavilan, 2011; Head Games, 2007)
John Kenyon - (Get Hit, Hit Back: A Fight Card Story, 2013; The First Cut, 2012) 
Following the reading, Phillips will introduce a free screening of THE ICE HARVEST, adapted from his novel of the same name and directed by Harold Ramis. 


Saturday, September 27, 2014

HOW I CAME TO WRITE "ROLL THE CREDITS" (AKA HECTOR LASSITER & WWII)

Roll the Credits is, in short form, the Second World War and liberation of Paris seen through the eyes of author/screenwriter Hector Lassiter.

But it's also a special novel in the Lassiter canon for me.

Long before RTC, there was the Lassiter entry Head Games. That novel was dedicated to the memory of my maternal grandfather, William Charles Sipe, Sr.


ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

In Head Games, I was trying to write the kind of fiction book my grandfather most loved to read—pulpy and fast, but with some gritty (and dark) heart.

My granddad had three sons, two of whom would serve in the military.

William C. Sipe Sr. and Jr.

The eldest, whose shared name promoted by grandfather to "Sr." status, saw action in Europe during the Second World War. He passed away a few years ago. One night, bumping around online, I found a little photo of Uncle Junior in Europe, in what appear to be happier times. This is the shot:
In a bar in Corvallis just before the 70th went to Fort Leonard Wood.
From left to right: J.D. Hollingsworth, William C. Sipe Jr,
Johnny Borowski and Johnny Kaufman.


He's the dark-haired guy in the dark jacket. I've spent a lot of time looking at that photo. I see some of my own features in that face...imagine how different my life was at that age from his.

Once—just once—I remember my grandfather talking about some war experiences shared with him by my Uncle Junior. It was graphic, pretty terrible to hear, even for a nine- or ten-year-old with already dark reading tastes. At the time, I thought maybe my grandfather was reciting this story from conversational memory.

Many years later, some of my grandparents' photos and letters were passed down to me. Among them, I found a letter my uncle had written his parents from over there. Its written in cursive, in pencil. I saw then that the one-off, dark story my grandfather shared with me sprang from this letter. Some excerpts:

May 28, 1945
Hanau, Germany

Dear Mother:
This is Monday. I'm ok, everything is allright here. I haven't received a letter from you for three days now. I hope this finds you all well. Tell the children hello from me.

They have relaxed the censorship regulations so now I can write more than I could before.

There's a lot that I would like to tell you but it would take a whole tablet. I can tell you the town that I have been in and the ones we have fought in. I'm glad that at the time I was in combat I couldn't tell you much because I would have worried you more than before.

When we left Fort Leonard Wood, we went to Camp Miles Standish near Boston. We were there from the 23 of Dec to the 8th of Jan. We reached port after nine days at sea. It was Marseille in Southern France. The harbor there was filled with sunken ships. The first night there we had an air raid it really gave us a thrill but it was nothing like the things that were to come.

In about two weeks, we started to the front to go into combat. We were all on edge not knowing what was to come. In about a week we had reached a position about two miles behind the front lines. We couldn't sleep at night because the big guns were firing continuous.

We were shoved into combat in about three more days. We started fighting in France...  I want to tell you what my job was before I go any further. I'm in a liaison section it works with the infantry. We live, sleep and eat with them on the front lines. We direct the artillery fire on the enemy, therefore we have to be on some high ground where we can see our troops and the enemy at the same time.

The most that I have ever been scared was one night when we were on Spicheren Heights, near Spicheren France. We were on the very front lines... We were sitting on top of this hill overlooking the Krauts. All at once they started a drive and we were caught flat-footed. They sent about 20 tiger tanks at us and about 300 men.

I was never so scared in my life. I was in a foxhill on top of a hill and didn't have a chance in the world of getting out. You have never seen or could imagine a sight like it. The shells were hitting the ground and the trees all around me. The tanks were about 300 yards from us and our anti tank guns were doing a pretty good job on the tanks but the Krauts kept on coming. The tanks came to about 100 yards of us and stopped, but the infantry kept right on coming. We were directing fire from the artillery on them and killing a lot but more kept coming. When they got too close for artillery fire all I could do was fight side by side with the infantry. They were within fifty feet of us before we opened up with our small arms.

They were dropping like flies but so were our men. Three of them came for the same foxhole I was in, shooting their rifles at me. I knew that I had to do something quick so I stick my head (out) and let go about 50 shots from my Tommy gun at them. Most of my shots hit them in the stomach and they died instantly. They were the first that I've ever killed and were the last. By that time our tanks had gotten up there and more infantry. We pushed them back to where they were before and the next day we drove on...

Sometimes I dreamed about those three men I killed. They were about 22 or 23.

I will close now. Write and don't worry. I'm in no danger now and I won't be unless I should go to Japan.

Love,
Bill
————
Update: I've since found a long, compelling, photo rich history of the 493rd Amored Field units' combat history that lays out the action that so affected my uncle. (P. 41 of this pdf.) It appears it happened on Feb. 22, 1945: "They closed in on our troops from four sides. The attack was sustained for 30 minutes..."—CM
————

When I was a kid, World War II wasn't all that long ago. Most of its surviving vets were still fairly vital men. This year they are in astonishingly short supply.

We particularly romanticize that conflict, of course. So many great love songs came out of it; they still grind out WWII movies.

To many minds, rightly or wrongly, that war constitutes the last just and "good" war.

In the course of writing Head Games, I included an article penned by poet Bud Fiske about Hector Lassiter's life—some pulpy bio/profile Fiske had penned for the long-defunct men's journal, True Magazine.

I built into Hector's backstory a kind of notorious World War II history lifted from the life of author Ernest Hemingway.


In effect, Hem went over to Europe as a war correspondent, but morphed into a guerilla leader who was among the first into Paris, precisely seven decades ago this year.

In writing Print the Legend, I again injected a little more about Hector and his picaresque, somewhat controversial World War II war correspondent comportment.

Flash forward a year or so. All of the original projected seven novels in the Hector Lassiter series were in at least first-draft form. Head Games was then freshly nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Hector and I had some buzz.


An editor from St. Martins comes courting. John Schoenfelder reads all of the Lassiter drafts. We have this long evening telephone conversation in which he pitches me on writing yet another Lassiter. Its the Lassiter he really wants to publish, but doesn't yet exist.

The novel John envisions would encompass Hector's World War II adventures. (He had some other ideas, too, some involving Hector and the writing of Mein Kampf, a concept I could just never figure out a way to bring off...)

I went down some different alleys when I began to tackle that book.

I wanted to touch on pre-WWII German cinema's influence on film noir, the genre sometimes-screenwriter Hector Lassiter swam so deeply in.

My now sixteen-year-old eldest daughter was deeply engrossed by the Holocaust and Anne Frank at the time. More grist...


I was also reading some newly released materials related to Hemingway's WWII efforts, along with some books about the OSS and this strange special military ops branch...

Seems at some point, the Office of Strategic Services employed filmmakers, authors and other creative types to engage in black-ops and efforts at enemy misdirection. 

These guys recorded soundtracks to emit from empty forests that simulated nonexistent troop action. They painted canvases to fox aerial surveillance planes into "seeing" rows of planes and tanks.

They used authors like Hector to script fake radio chatter studded with bogus intelligence disguised as injudicious, informal banter.

All of this went into the stew, along with Mr. Schoenfelder's insistence that the whole brew come to a boiling point with a climax in what he termed, "the steaming jungles of Brazil."

There was so much to get into the pot—the turbulence of the Liberation of Paris, the reprisals against those Parisians who collaborated or consorted with the occupying German forces... The fallout for the Hemingways and Lassiters who bent the rules to help the great cause...

But then Roll the Credits went onto the back burner for a long time.

John and I edited Credits, had it in line for a 2011 release, but then John moved on to other publishing fields and I sensed his successor wasn't fully behind RTC, didn't connect with the novel's subject matter. 

I instead pitched her on a swap, and we ended up with One True Sentence closing out my St. Martin's contract run. (I did creep the antagonist from RTC into the opening pages of OTS, however.)

In the intervening years, verbal agreements were made to publish RTC elsewhere, and then they dissolved. Things fell apart; the center would not hold.

Enter Betimes Books: At last, on the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, Roll the Credits finally sees the light.

This is Hector's own private war from Lyon through Paris and on into the Liberation. From there it's back into Hollywood, just a few months after the events of Head Games.
And, for John, it's those steaming jungles of Brazil in all their sweaty, deadly glory.

Roll the Credits marks the first time since Head Games that Hector narrates his own story.

RTC is also the last of the big-page-count Lassiter novels. (You need some real room for a subject as big as WWII and the birth of film noir).

This one was written in the early months of 2009. Like Toros & Torsos, it came together very quickly in first draft.

The greater struggle was finding the right title for the book. For the longest time, the novel lived under the pulpy working title, Hector Lassiter vs. the Nazis.

In the end, I took inspiration from the title of a then recently-released song by Tom Russell that went to the heart of RTC's cinematic themes. 

Here's a music video of that tune, as well as the three book trailers prepared for Roll the Credits.






ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook



Other titles in the Hector Lassiter series:


ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook



HEAD GAMES: eBook


PRINT THE LEGEND: Hardcover

And Coming Soon:

THE RUNNING KIND

THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH

WRITE FROM WRONG

Sunday, September 21, 2014

OCCULT, NAZIS & ORSON WELLES COLLIDE IN 'THE GREAT PRETENDER'


"With each of his Hector Lassiter novels, Craig McDonald has stretched his canvas wider and unfurled tales of increasingly greater resonance." --Megan Abbott

"Reading a Hector Lassiter novel is like having a great uncle pull you aside, pour you a tumbler of rye, and tell you a story about how the 20th century 'really' went down." --Duane Swierczynski

"James Ellroy + Kerouac + Coen brothers + Tarantino = Craig McDonald." --Amazon.fr

"The Great Pretender" (Hector Lassiter #4) is now available for the first time ever from Betimes Books.


THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook


Here's the pitch:

Nazis, black magic and secret history collide in Craig McDonald's "The Great Pretender." In 2007, McDonald launched the Hector Lassiter series with the Edgar Award-nominated debut, "Head Games," pairing the globetrotting, larger-than-life crime novelist with equally legendary filmmaker and amateur magician Orson Welles. "The Great Pretender" fits the capstone on the Lassiter/Welles legend, spanning their decades-long, uneasy association from the run-up to Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds Panic Broadcast of 1938" to the set of the noir classic "The Third Man" and the ruins of post-war Vienna. The novel finds the actor and author in a race for a lost holy relic promising its possessor infinite power but a ghastly death if lost. Hector and Orson's competitors in their quest for the 'Spear of Destiny' or 'Holy Lance' include German occultists, members of the Third Reich, a sensuous Creole Voodoo priestess and a strangely obsessed J. Edgar Hoover.


____

Sample chapter (Spoiler caution: Don't read the following if you have not already read "Forever's Just Pretend"!):

1
THE STRANGER

“Perception is reality, that’s how the saying goes, isn’t it, Hec?”
Hector Lassiter, novelist, screenwriter, and for the moment, literary executor, looked down at all the chilly pedestrians scurrying through the autumn wind tearing along Fifth Avenue. The fierce wind made eyes water and noses run down there. Up here the wind cut to bone. He called above its roar, “That’s indeed what some say, Mathis.” Hector lit a cigarette with his windproof Zippo, engraved with the legend, “One True Sentence.” He slipped the lighter into the  pocket of his overcoat.
Standing on the eighty-sixth floor of the world’s tallest and most famous building, Hector pulled on his right glove and took another hit from the coffin nail as he stared up at the dirigible mooring mast—a pointless novelty—looming higher above them.
Hector wasn’t crazy about heights and the view up made his legs tremble. Taking a deep, icy breadth, he looked back down the side of the Empire State and said, “Suppose as clichés go, that one is true enough. Least so far as it runs. Take those people down there. They only look like ants, you know.”
They were supposed to be having this meeting over coffee in a cozy place downstairs. But Hector had talked his companion into coming up here in the wicked wind where only fools, would-be suicides or stubborn tourists would venture on a blustery, late autumn day. Hector had his reasons.
Peter Mathis, rising New York publisher, smiled and said, “Sure. Anyway, this is a remarkable turn to say the least. Imagine, the popular and mysterious mystery writer, Connor Templeton, and the cult crime author, Bud Grant, being one-in-the-same. But, no, that’s not enough! Both of those male writers were actually the pen name for a raven-haired stunner named Brinke Devlin! My publicity people are going to go berserk in the best sense with this, Hec. It transcends the merely remarkable. And it’s surely money in the bank. Having seen some snapshots of Brinke, this wife of yours who wrote like a tough, lusty he-man and yet looked like a far prettier, bustier Louise Brooks? All I can say is, this will be huge.”
“Money isn’t the point, not for me,” Hector said. “And certainly not for her. Publication, long-term, hell, permanent publication, is the aim. This is about her legacy. This is about Brinke’s long game. Literary immortality is the objective.” 
“Well, of course,” Mathis said. “That’s one of the things you pay me for, isn’t it?”
Hector nodded. “Just making sure we’re clear on my primary goal in signing with you to at last publish all of her books under Brinke’s real name.” It was a Hail Mary gambit on Hector’s part. His first wife’s literary oeuvre under both her pen names had lately gone out of print. Hector simply couldn’t stomach that. Brinke could never slip into literary obscurity, not so long as Hector lived.
The two men shook gloved hands. Mathis said, “To my last comment, I’m in danger of being late for a meeting about some of Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous works. We’re in negotiations about trying to do something more significant with 'O Lost'. I still can’t believe he’s dead. And gone so young. Did you ever meet Tom?”
The North Carolina novelist and Ernest Hemingway’s bête noire had died last month. Tom’s was a sudden and bad death, like Brinke’s, only of natural causes. Hector let go of the man’s hand. “Crossed paths two or three times, I suppose. Seemed a nice enough fella in the moment. A decent, if undisciplined, fiction writer. He drove Hem to distraction, I know. Anyway, thirty-seven is far too young to be dead, regardless of what you did or how well you maybe did it.”
“Indeed. Well, at least Tom didn’t have to suffer too long. There’s real comfort in that, yes?”
“Sure there is.”
They said their goodbyes. Hector watched the publisher go, then checked his watch. His next appointment was characteristically late. He turned up the collar of his overcoat and thrust his hands deeper into its pockets, looking out across the city but also watching the other lone man standing a bit off to Hector’s left, the author’s presumed stalker—his reason for dragging the publisher and the actor yet to come up here in the roaring, cold wind.
But there’d be time for that later, if indeed the man was really following the writer. For now, for better or worse, Hector’s head was elsewhere. Dead at thirty-seven? Jesus Christ, didn’t that resonate? Come January, Hector would be thirty-nine. Brinke would have been, what? Forty-three, forty-four? Something like that. Hector damned himself for not being certain. Either way, his first and truest love had never seen 1926.
That voice—it rose above the roar of the wind. “Hector, old man! Don’t you look well?” It was l’enfant terrible himself, George Orson Welles, twenty-three, red-cheeked and already the toast of the Great White Way and the radio airwaves. Orson, still tragically baby-faced, was sporting the sparse shadow of a beard he was growing for a stage role. Hector had first met the dramatic prodigy in Ireland, when Orson was indeed a boy actor. Back then, Orson regarded Hector as a kind of worldlier older brother. Eventually, after a brief return to the States, the two had shared an idyll across Spain, followed the bullfighting circuit together. That fraternal dynamic defined their friendship in its early going.
Now, despite their age difference—one of fifteen years, give or take—they comported themselves more or less as peers.
Hector supposed that owed chiefly to his young friend’s precocious but universally acknowledged—if untamed—genius. As he had the last time they’d met, Orson looked to be firing on pure adrenaline, caffeine and nervous energy. Maybe something else, too: Hector was betting on Benzedrine or perhaps amphetamines to kick-start the boy-giant’s metabolism.
Even as a kid, Orson was fighting his waistline. Eyes already tearing-up, Orson cast his watery gaze down at the sidewalk far below. “The call of the void, yes? Did you hear about Dorothy Hale, old man?” Orson’s voice was already growing breathy, the cold wind aggravating his asthma.
Hector shook his head. “What’s a Dorothy Hale?” “What was, you mean. Or who was she, rather.” Orson smiled sadly. “Socialite and struggling actress. Pretty, but lacking talent. She threw a big farewell party for herself in her penthouse in the Hampshire House on Central Park South. Then she hurled herself off her terrace. It was only a few days ago. It was in all the papers. Suicide, though some say murder. Would they really dig for a bullet after a fall like that some have wondered. Anyway, I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”
“Been on the road mostly these past few days,” Hector said. “Haven’t been keeping up with the news. Just grown more than tired of all the war drums, you know?”
“Understood, and anyway we haven’t much time, old friend,” Orson said. “We need to take our meal and then for you to tell me what was so pressing for us to have to meet—delighted though I am for any excuse to spend time with you. Then I need to get to my place with all haste. You can sit in tonight, if you’d like to, and listen to the probably vexing wax disc coming my way later. I’d frankly love it if you did. I’d be very grateful for your reaction. They’re rehearsing and recording our next Mercury production tonight. It’s a corker, at least in theory. My spin on H.G.—that other Wells, though he spelled his last name the wrong way—and The War of the Worlds. We’re giving it the new broom treatment. Projecting it all through the prism of our modern mass media. Basically, in the early going anyway, it will play as a developing radio news story. We have a fake orchestra, fake news breaks. Hell, even a fake F.D.R., more or less.”
“Can hardly wait,” Hector said. “But about us meeting now, I’m confused. You telegraphed me for this meeting, don’t you remember?”
“I did no such thing, old man. You sent for me.” Orson frowned. “Urgent was a word used at least three times in various forms in your telegram, you’ll recall.”
“I don’t recall that and I could say the same of your wire to me,” Hector said. A new chill that had nothing to do with the autumn cold made him shiver.
“This is very strange,” Orson said. “Clearly, we do need to talk more.” Orson smiled uncertainly and pulled the brim of his hat lower against the gales. Of the same, he said, “This wind… Still, not as bad as last month’s, I suppose. The remnants of that hurricane killed over five-dozen in the city and injured hundreds here. Whatever the reason for us being here together now, is there some good reason we’re at the top of this absurd building, in this ridiculous cold, old friend?”
“Maybe, and it could be tied to this other little mystery about our respective wire communications,” Hector said. “My previous meeting was here, but I was also testing a theory. We can surely go inside now. Know of any restaurants close-by and with a fireplace?”
Orson smiled and took Hector’s arm. “We’ll find such a place. It’s colder than a witch’s you-know-what up here. Maybe Billingsley’s Club Room, or Dickie Wells, in Harlem, we might find some delectably dusky female companionship.”
Orson smiled and impulsively tousled the hair of an eavesdropping, equally red-cheeked boy. The child frowned, then looked like he might cry. His pretty young mother glared at Orson. For his part, Welles held up gray-gloved hands to show them both empty. He said in his most sonorous tone, “Now, watch out for the slightest hint of hanky-panky, good sir.”
With raised eyebrows, Orson reached behind the boy’s ear and produced a quarter that he folded into the tyke’s trembling hands.
All seemed to be forgiven. Smiling and shaking his head, Hector said, “Always with the magic.”
Orson winked at the boy’s comely mother and said, “Always. Of course.” An at once cherubic and satanic smile spread across the actor’s face. He said, “I am, after all, a charlatan.”



Buy Trade Paperback


Also available for the first time ever: "Roll the Credits" (Hector Lassiter #5), the epic World War II adventure narrated by Hector himself. (More here).


Other titles in the Hector Lassiter series:


ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook