An Interview with Craig McDonald: The Hector Lassiter Series
Craig McDonald is an author and journalist. He has written fourteen novels, including, to date, nine books in the award-winning Hector Lassiter series. I have kept up a correspondence with Craig these past few years as we are both avid readers of James Ellroy. I’m also a massive fan of the Lassiter novels, and when Craig agreed to be interviewed by me, he also kindly supplied an advance copy of the final novel in the Lassiter series, the forthcoming Three Chords and the Truth. If you are not already initiated, I hope this interview will persuade you to start reading the Lassiter novels. They are compelling, thrilling and darkly humorous. Lassiter is a brilliant creation– a crime writer who learned his trade with Ernest Hemingway and the Lost Generation in Paris in the 1920s. He is also a man who seems dangerously prone to violent intrigue, doomed love affairs, tragic marriages and military campaigns (he’s a veteran of the Punitive Expedition, World War One, the Spanish Civil War and World War Two). Lassiter witnesses history unfolding and, occasionally, has a role in shaping it course. With Three Chords and the Truth, Craig McDonald has crafted a remarkable coda to the series. Here’s the transcript of our conversation:
Interviewer: Hector Lassiter made his first appearance in your short story ‘The Last Interview’. When you were writing, what were your thoughts about developing the character because it reads very differently from the later novels?
McDonald: There was a contest, actually, and I was not really published at all in terms of fiction or even really non-fiction. It was called ‘High Pulp’ and it was supposed to be for the Mississippi Review, and they asked for a hybrid of literary approach to the short story but through a pulp prism. So I was thinking a lot about James Crumley at that time, particularly The Last Good Kiss, which is probably one of my favourite novels in the genre, and I’d been corresponding with the Irish crime writer Ken Bruen. He’d been talking about Crumley and how as the series unfolded Crumley had two male characters as his protagonists (Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue), but they never really aged in a realistic way, and we thought it would have been so much richer if they had. So when I approached ‘The Last Interview’, I was thinking of James Crumley and sort of writing a man who’s at the end of his life. And I was thinking obviously of Ernest Hemingway, particularly his short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, which is about a man dying of gangrene about to lose a leg. And when you know that, reading ‘The Last Interview’ you see the Hemingway influence even more heavily. It was a one-shot in my mind, so I didn’t write with any kind of open-ended notion of ever returning to the character. And the Review picked it up. It appeared in print. It got picked up in some anthology, and by that time, I had secured a literary agent. And she was shopping some things around without a lot of success, and I got this notion of writing a book about the stolen head of Pancho Villa. And somewhere within the first fifteen minutes of thinking about that, I decided that character from the short story should come back and be the protagonist of the novel. I think at that point he began to move in a different direction, as you said, from the character we meet in the short story: a bit more cultivated, not quite as sulky, a bit more of a bon vivant than the man in the bed who’s dying in ‘The Last Interview’.
Interviewer: Yes, I thought he was quite different– quite embittered in ‘The Last Interview’, as many people would be in a state of extreme illness. It seems like there’s been a number of transitions because you transitioned between ‘The Last Interview’ and Head Games. Head Games is a wonderful novel. The last third of the novel, particularly, is very different from the last third of any other novel in the series. You described how you intended it to be a ‘fake out’. Was it Crumley who you were trying to imitate for the bizarre denouement for that novel?
McDonald: A little bit. I was about three-quarters of the way through Head Games when I already had a notion for writing what would be the follow-up, and I guess at this point it bears saying that I wrote the novels in a certain sequence with the idea that they would appear in that sequence. The series was very unusual in that I wrote almost the entire series before we actually published the first book, so I had a definite arc and then, unfortunately through the publication of the books, editors would read them and cherry pick, so they ended up selling them and having the books published in a radically different sequence than I envisioned them originally appearing. So it creates some confusion, but Head Games was the original novel in the series that I wrote. It was the first one published and it was inspired partly by James Sallis’ series: the detective/writer/educator Lew Griffin. His series of novels, I think there are about five, maybe six, are very unusual in that it’s very metafictional. It’s very self-aware and the end of his series, without spoiling it, literally rips the carpet out from under you as the reader and forces you to think about the entire series again with this radical ending when a different narrator steps in. And my conceit through the Hector Lassiter novels, which are written in various voices as you’ve seen– first-person, third-person, variations therewith– was that regardless of how they were framed they were really secretly being written by Hector himself, and I kind of knew that as I was going into Head Games. I would take everything in one direction and then move it in a different direction, headed towards that last book in the series, which is the only one yet to appear at this time.
Interviewer: Yes, can I come back to that metafictional point a bit later on. Let’s talk a little bit about Hector. I’m quite taken by this idea that he looks a lot like William Holden because I’m a huge William Holden fan. I think he’s a marvellous actor. There’s a quote about William Holden. I don’t know who said it, ‘William Holden, you can see the map of America on his face.’ I’m wondering, did that quote mean anything to you when you chose this Holden likeness?
McDonald: Yes, I saw him as William Holden as I was writing Head Games. Probably, when I was writing the short story he was some sort of bearded blend of Crumley and Hemingway. James Crumley, quite frankly, is kind of the Ernest Hemingway of crime writers in terms of his larger than life persona. He felt an obligation, much to his detriment and eventual ill-health, to be the last guy in the bar, and the man who could clear a bar, and that sort of thing. I saw Hector as I was writing the novels as much more of a polished, very masculine man but a ladies’ man, and someone who is extremely emblematic of just the American spirit of that time. And I always had a real fondness for William Holden. He was certainly someone who was well-travelled, and that was something I saw Hector as too. Someone who could move comfortably in different places. Whether he be in Europe or in Texas, he is essentially that same man – the quintessential American.
Interviewer: I think there was an element of tragedy to William Holden in that he’d be about twenty years Hector’s junior, and he died relatively young.
McDonald: Yes, he fell in his apartment alone while drinking and hit his head on a table and, rather characteristically, he tried to administer his own first aid to an ultimately fatal head injury. He was somebody who had definite issues with alcohol, and he aged himself so dramatically. I suppose this was about 1964-65, you start to see him really physically showing the ravages of drinking. He probably looked twenty years older than he was at the time of his death.
Interviewer: Back to Hector as a character, I’m just thinking about some of his views, and it strikes me that he’s gregarious, and he seems to know everyone but he has quite strong opinions about people like me. He doesn’t like critics and, in Print the Legend, not just critics but scholars as well. Where do you stand on the symbiotic relationship between novelists and critics?
McDonald: I’ve had severely rough reviews from people, who I think are critics, who actually think that I hate critics! I truly don’t. I was a book reviewer for a number of years before I began to publish myself, and I was an English major. I sat there and wrote long, very detailed, explicated pieces on literature. I think it’s a very noble calling. I think that ideally, and I think I say this a bit in Print the Legend, through the voice of the young aspiring female writer who’s married to a critic – a rather awful, sour critic – Hannah Paulson. She’s talking about the fact that there is a symbiotic relationship, and in the most constructive form, critics and authors, if they’re listening, can establish a dialogue. A tacit dialogue, I suppose, it’s not explicit, obviously, where criticism can inform and help guide a writer. I was thinking of Hemingway too, because Hemingway is a recurring character in the Hector series. He’s Hector’s best friend and they go through Paris as aspiring writers together. Hemingway, I’m reading his letters, and he was very strategic and very smart about critics he courted in the early portion of his career, and was sending them novels. He valued people like Edmund Wilson, and some others of that era who were serious critics and steeped in the canon and really wrote very intelligently about fiction. Then by the 1950s, Hemingway is sending letters threatening to sue critics and scholars who were going after him. I think also with Hector, because he is a popular writer, he probably has a certain amount of resentment that he doesn’t get serious critical attention. The closest thing he would have had would have been Anthony Boucher in the New York Times, who was the lone critic in the intelligentsia who gave any kind of serious attention to genre writing.
Interviewer: Yes, that is interesting because the first Hector novel chronologically is One True Sentence with the Lost Generation, and you might think that some of those writers are a bit lost themselves. The antagonists in that novel are called Nadaists, and you tend to have these quite sinister and villainous and deplorable people gathered round ideologies or aesthetic movements: Nadaists or Surrealists or even the Mafia in The Running Kind is a kind of law unto itself. It has its own rules and codes. Is it partly send up, or do you find there’s something genuinely menacing about these kind of aesthetic movements?
McDonald: I would say it’s more send up than anything else. I’m more fascinated by the idea of groups of people doing things with insidious intent because I think that’s far more skin-crawling than the lone wolf, aberrational villain or antagonist. I set certain private goals for myself across the series, and a lot of it was directed towards looking at the movements in art through Modernism and Dadaism which is really what nada is in a sense. It’s a very nihilistic kind of philosophy moving into Surrealism. As we go into Print the Legend, at that point you’re starting to move into metafiction, and moving towards Deconstructionism, and all of these ‘isms’ that really if you’re an artist or a writer who has any scope of career — and I deliberately have Hector born on January 1, 1900, so that he basically comes in with the century and he takes you through that century — you have to cope with all of those ‘isms’ in terms of trying to remain relevant, and I think you come to resent them a lot if you’re the kind of writer Hector is. He’s sort of on the margins. He set out in One True Sentence: he’s there in Paris trying to write a novel and he’s just writing the same thirty or forty pages over and over again because he’s just not writing to his passions or in the direction he’s meant to, and then as soon as he starts writing the so-called ‘genre novels’, he finds his voice and he’s off on his career. With each book I was taking in different things that I wanted to touch on: One True Sentence is really about writing for the most part; The Great Pretender, Orson Welles, that’s about radio and mass communication coming into the world and how it affects things; Roll the Credits is film; The Running Kind has a sort of pioneer, birth of television air about it. In The Running Kind, it’s mentioned that television sales for the first time spiked because of the televised grilling of all these Mafiosos. They were showing these interrogations in movie theatres, and selling tickets, and television sales went through the roof just based on those (Kefauver) hearings. Print the Legend is sort of about the book publishing industry, and the last book (Three Chords and the Truth) is the music industry.
Interviewer: I was particularly impressed with The Running Kind, where you have this meeting with Rod Serling who was one of the great television pioneers. It seemed to fit the story quite well. Something of an oddity in the series is Forever’s Just Pretend because of the absence of historical figures. It seems like in that novel you established a kind of plotting technique where you’d have Hector’s running battles with the cabal of local businessman and dubious law enforcement figures that is resolved about two-thirds of the way through, and the story kind of devolves into this series of quite bizarre confrontations with Miguel first and a chap called Mike. I was struck by the fact that they both have the same name anglicised. Was that something that you planned to have – a main plot and for the story to run out into a smaller plot and end on that point?
McDonald: I think that’s a fair point. I think that the book has some structural issues.
Interviewer: I quite like it like that!
McDonald: Another thing that Sallis did in the Lew Griffin novels: he insisted that time should be a protagonist, and occasionally some of the challenges I set for myself bent the narrative probably more in that book than in any other book. If you look at One True Sentence, that’s a week. The book is broken into sections by days of the week. In Print the Legend, I jumped decades. It starts in 57’. It makes a leap to 1967, and then it makes another leap to 1970. Toros & Torsos was set across several decades, several continents. And with Forever’s Just Pretend, I wanted to step away from this Zelig-like Woody Allen cameos by famous people because I just wanted to make it clear I could take the series away from that sense. There’s another writer named Max Allan Collins who writes a series about a private eye called Nate Heller, and his series uses a lot of historical characters and crimes, and I read those and I enjoyed them in the early going, but at some point I felt that this guy was attached to every crime on earth, knew every famous person and celebrity and I wanted to step away from that. The structure of Forever’s Just Pretend: it’s a love story. It’s supposed to resolve some of the loose ends of One True Sentence. One True Sentence and Forever’s Just Pretend are Hector Lassiter’s origins story becoming the writer he will become, and the man, the cheerfully vituperative cynic he appears to be later in the series. In that particular book, if you look at that structure, it moves across holiday weekends across the space of a year. I think it opens on Valentine’s Day, moves through Independence Day, Labor Day. I was trying to combine two real crimes in that book. At least in my head there was more linkage than maybe comes through in the final product. There was a series of crimes about that same time that occurred in Toledo, Ohio, where somebody was going round beating people to death with a baseball bat. It’s known as the Toledo Slugger killings, and at the same time there were a number of mysterious arsons across the Key West. So I left those crimes in place, and I took the Ohio baseball bat crimes and moved them to Key West.
Interviewer: I read Forever’s Just Pretend, and the death of Brinke, it did remind me of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: the end scene. Then, when I read Death in the Face, Fleming specifically said to Hector, ‘I’m sorry I stole your tragedy’. I have read the novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but quite a long time ago, and I’ve seen the film no end of times. What struck me about that film, it reminded me of your novel, when Blofeld and Irma Bunt drive past and machine gun the car. Bond jumps in the car and he’s like, ‘It’s Blofeld, let’s get him’, and we think we’re in for a good Bond-style chase here, but then he turns around and oh, now we’re not in a Bond film. Someone’s actually got hurt, and that reminded me of Hector. Shoot the bad guy, turn round and oh, there’s actually real tragedy here. Was that something you were going for?
McDonald: Yeah, and actually that was written as an homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I’m a tremendous Ian Fleming fan, and probably more than any other writer he’s been my biggest influence. I’ve probably read him, and reread, and reread him, more than any other author. The Lassiter series, if you really reduce it to its base component: it’s a single man who is a world traveller and an adventurer. He dresses well. He lives a pretty good life. He’s fond of alcohol. In reality, James Bond was a civil servant whose salary would never have supported that lifestyle. Even with some talented skills in gambling, it still would have been out of reach. I did have the Bond character in mind with Hector on a number of levels and Bond, he was nearly married twice. Vesper Lynd: I always think in Casino Royale, he was heading down that road with. I always admired the fact in Fleming that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service really calls back to Casino Royale. He meets these two women who he thinks of marriage with in the same place really. They’re similar characters in that they’re both in rough places in their lives, and in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I felt Fleming turned a corner with that book. It’s probably my favourite of all of the Bond books, and I knew eventually I was going to have Ian Fleming in the series, so I was foreshadowing that. As you say, in Death in the Face, Fleming acknowledges that ‘Oh yes, I was thinking of you when I wrote that ending’. Tonally, I know that the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service divides a lot of people, but I think it’s become more voguish to appreciate it now than at least it was. On my first viewing, I absolutely loved the film and Lazenby became my mind’s eye version of Bond, which I think is incredible as I really grew up with Sean Connery as Bond.
Interviewer: Yes, not to go too off topic, but I think he does a terrific job. I can’t imagine, as much as I admire Sean Connery, I can’t imagine him quite showing that vulnerability in some of the scenes where he’s being chased at the ice rink. He seems quite scared in an engaging way. Okay, Fleming only appears in one novel, but the two figures you come back to the most would be Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway. You come at them at very different parts of their lives: the young idealistic Welles producing War of the Worlds is very different from the much more jaded, world-weary guy who’s got a second break directing Touch of Evil. Do you immerse yourself in scholarship? How do you approach these figures at different points of their lives?
McDonald: Well, I tended to plot these books to write from my passions, and through my teens Orson Welles was such a fixture on TV, particularly interview shows. He was always on (Johnny) Carson, Merv Griffin. He was making commercials, and he was a big bearded guy. So I didn’t really need to do a lot of research. I read a lot of biographies. I’ve read a ton of books about Welles and Hemingway, so it’s not like I need to go back and research them very much. I’m drawing from memory for the most part. Occasionally, with Welles particularly, I would watch YouTube interviews or drop in on some of his films to pick up the voice. But in my mind, I really wanted the series to look at the evolution of the artist Hector Lassiter, who ultimately proves to be really quite the survivor, and his three great friends are Orson Welles, Ian Fleming, Ernest Hemingway. All these people of young promise, charisma, and who ultimately created public images that they couldn’t support. I think literally all three of them were absolutely undone, if not even destroyed, by the personalities they shaped for themselves largely just to build their own celebrity. There is something poignant: in the original publication sequence you went from Print the Legend, which is the eulogy of Ernest Hemingway, back to One True Sentence where he is the young, charismatic war vet who’s about to create a new language or reinvent the American fictional language in print down to that really strong declarative form.
Interviewer: Well, speaking of writers and their personas, you talked of two of your inspirations, James Crumley and James Sallis, and an author who is quite important to me as well – James Ellroy. There’s delicious little details in there that Lassiter was comrades with Lee Ellroy on the Punitive Expedition. Can you describe some of the ways Ellroy, although his novels are very different, has inspired the series?
McDonald: I think it’s very clear, and in my very first reviews, I was having Ellroy’s name invoked a lot, starting with Head Games. In a way I was like Hector in that I was an English major and I was trying to write the American novel, and at some point in the late 80s, I picked up The Big Nowhere and I was absolutely enthralled by that book. In many ways it’s still my favourite of James Ellroy’s novels– his approach to writing about the 1940s in the way that he did. At the same time, I was reading the Max Allan Collins Nate Heller novels. I was reading a novel he had written set in the 1940s and that novel felt to me the most ‘curated’ in the museum sense, whereas Ellroy’s was so vibrant, and it seemed so contemporary and yet appropriately in its era. And I tried to do that with the Hector novels as well, not to have them be sort of embalmed with brand names. I read a lot of novels that are set in the thirties and forties, and I feel like I’m reading a novel that was written with a Sears Roebuck catalogue sitting next to it with the brand name of the moment. But I felt uncomfortable at various points with the whole Ellroy thing. Probably the most unusual moment was when we had completed Print the Legend, and it was to come out about the same time as Blood’s a Rover, and the book was locked down with my editor, and I got a copy of the galley of Blood’s a Rover and read that novel, and I was horrified to see that we were working on the some of the same territory. COINTELPRO comes up in both novels, and they both end with the death of J. Edgar Hoover at his home. Perhaps I see myself way too much in Ellroy’s stable anticipating where he was going with that book. I think Ellroy is just a landmark figure in crime fiction. Of all of the people who have come out in the last thirty of forty years, I think he’s probably done more to reinvigorate crime fiction, and it is so audacious what he has done. Because I am a Hemingway fanatic, I’m also incredibly engaged by Ellroy because he is such a stylist. Although, at times, that has obviously gotten him in trouble, as you know, following the style a little too far for some readers.
Interviewer: Yes, although I’m probably with Ellroy when he said of you, because you liked The Cold Six Thousand, that you’re among ‘the thirty per cent and the brave’. I really liked The Cold Six Thousand, and I liked it probably more than Blood’s a Rover, and I sometimes rue that the critical reaction sent Ellroy on a bit of a tangent. If we can move back to the metafictional issue, I’m quite intrigued by the question of authorship, it comes up in Forever’s Just Pretend. Hector is writing novels that bear the same titles as the novel you’re holding, but he’s also got ones like Rhapsody in Black, titles that are unique to him. Metafiction is by its nature vague… shifting. It’s quite dangerous territory. How did you navigate it?
McDonald: Yeah, I think that’s a tightrope you can fall off and some of those surrealistic touches I’ve had people say it’s knocked them out of the book a bit, and again, I was kind of winking toward James Sallis’ Lew Griffin series. That is another series where you find you have a detective/writer as a protagonist, and he is authoring novels that have titles that are the same as the novel you’re reading. So it does beg the question about the veracity of the narrator and the untrustworthy narrator, and Hector Lassiter is tagged with the slogan that he’s the ‘man who writes what he lives and lives what he writes’. I just always tried to write the books with the central notion that he is an author– that ultimately he is sharing the story with you even if he is not writing it down himself in the first person. In the early stories of his career he has fictional protagonists, and by the middle of his career he’s using himself as a protagonist in his own novels, so again it’s that drift from traditional narrative through Modernism toward something more experimental, and when he’s taken that as far as he can Hector more or less takes that persona out of the world and reinvents himself as a writer yet again.
Interviewer: Yeah, interestingly, in Print the Legend, Donovan Creedy: this kind of despicable Howard Hunt figure…
McDonald: Very much modelled on E. Howard Hunt yes.
Interviewer: […]Postmodernism, he says, is actually a conspiracy by the FBI to have all novelists write interminable intellectual waffle, which I thought was a very funny detail. We’ve talked a little bit about aesthetic movements being villains, and I do like the interchange between Hector and Werner Höttl in Roll the Credits. Höttl says: I made you. I created film noir. And the more I tortured you, the better you wrote. Even the title ‘Roll the Credits’ refers to attribution. Did you write that novel, because there’s many parallels between the two, with a view of Lassiter and Werner Höttl being kind of mirror images?
McDonald: With Höttl being a mirror image to Hector?
Interviewer: Yeah, I know one’s a despicable character and ones the hero, but it seems like there’s so many parallels between them being father figures, being artistes.
McDonald: Oh yeah, absolutely. Whereas Hector is a little more benign in using his life as fuel for his fiction, in a lot of ways Höttl is Hector raised to the tenth level in that he’s aggressively doing that, and he’s willing to burn down the world for art essentially. He has these great visions and frustrations that he wasn’t able to create this film of the destruction of Paris that he hoped to achieve. They were very much meant to be flip side versions of one another.
Here’s the recently released cover image of Three Chords and the Truth.