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An Interview with Max Allan Collins

Author of Quarry in the Middle

(and much, much more)

 

Max Allan Collins writes novels, screen plays, comic books, comic strips, trading cards, short stories, TV show and movie novelizations and even historical fiction. Max Allan Collins also collaborates with Mickey Spillane. He has written so much that you may be a fan and not even know it. Probably the easiest way to introduce him, that is, for instant recognition, is to tell you that he wrote the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION, which was developed into the 2002 movie of the same name. Yes, Max Allan Collins is a very busy man, and thus we fell all that much more lucky that Max was able to take the time for this very interesting interview.

This interview was conducted by Daniel Luft for MostlyFiction.com (MF). Read Daniel's review of Quarry in the Middle as well. The review page include a bibliography (sans novelizations).

Book title by Author Name

MF: Tell us about Quarry, who he was to you when you started the series 30-odd years ago and how he may have changed for you since then?

MAX ALLAN COLLINS (MAC): I was still in college, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. I'd done BAIT MONEY, which was essentially a pastiche of Richard Stark's Parker, and NO CURE FOR DEATH, which was my take on a private eye. I was looking for a way to do something of my own in hardboiled fiction, and it occurred to me that on some level BAIT MONEY (and Stark's novels) were a cop-out. Yes, the reader had to identify with a bad guy, but Stark's approach was third-person, and Parker never killed anybody but other bad guys.

I got the notion to write about a hitman in the first-person, force the reader to either get on board or bail. I also wanted to explore what was then a very new concept -- the traumatized Vietnam veteran, specifically using a friend of mine from high school who had experienced the unfaithful wife scenario of Quarry's back story (minus killing the wife's lover). And I wanted to explore the thematic notion that Americans were numb from Vietnam and the violence it represented.

 

MF: How is it to return to a character you created in your youth?

MAC: Quarry, like my Nate Heller character, is always right there waiting for me. Also, I wrote a fifth novel about Quarry in the '80s, and several short stories in the '90s, plus the short film "A Matter of Principal," which became a screenplay and eventually grew into THE LAST QUARRY.

 

The First QuarryMF: You’ve been jumping around the decades with Quarry lately, is there a time period you find ripe for stories about him?

MAC: Quarry becoming sort of a historical proposition is just an accident of time. I conceived of THE LAST QUARRY as literally the last story, and have aged him pretty accurately as to the passing of years. So when I responded to readers and critics saying, "It's too bad Collins can't ever do another Quarry," in my usual obstinant way, I turned to filling in the gaps of his story. THE FIRST QUARRY was obvious, and the '70s period was simply the period required. Same with the '80s and QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE. But it does add an interesting resonance.

The concept of this normal guy who has become a hitman, due to war trauma, is timeless, though. A film of THE FIRST QUARRY would not require a '70s setting. Life on a college campus doesn't change much, and there's always a war to screw a young person up.

 

MF: Are you the most prolific author to pass through the Iowa Writers Group?

MAC: I have no idea. Possibly. I was definitely non-traditional in the program -- when we had to write a thesis paper about a major American author, and everybody was doing Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I did Mickey Spillane. What saved me was that the teachers -- all professional writers -- knew a pro when they saw one, and you could dislike the genre I had chosen, but you couldn't say I wasn't a pro. From a craft standpoint, I was way out in front.

 

MF: What was it like writing crime fiction there among all those poets?

MAC: We used to have a joke about that. Why did the Fiction workshop group hate the poets? Because they were always between works. I never encountered poets much, really. I made lots of friends at the workshop but nobody I stayed in touch with. It was divided between people who were impressed by my craft and others who looked down their nose at me. Not much has changed! What I really remember about the workshop is the support of Richard Yates, Gina Berriault, and several other outstanding writers, who "got" me. I also worked with William Price Fox and Walter Tevis, too, writers I admired, but they were both too caught up in their own work to be of much help.

 

MF: Have you ever been back to lecture or teach?

MAC: I taught summer classes there, twice. These were mystery oriented and several of my students went on to publish.

 

Max Allan CollinsMF: At the same time you created Quarry, back in college, you also created Nolan the star of several heist novels, how does it feel to have him reprinted?

MAC: Nolan has a strong following, and in some sense -- because he was first -- he will always be my main guy. Funny to say that, since I haven't written about him since the '80s. If I do write about him again, it will probably be in the fashion of Quarry -- going back to the '80s. Because he would be in his seventies now.

 

MF: Any thoughts to bring him out of retirement with something new?

MAC: If I do another Nolan, it will probably be the last one. I had a story I was going to do about him and Sherry getting married in Vegas that never got written. Probably will do that one, if somebody gives me the opportunity.

 

MF: You’ve mentioned that Nolan is derivative of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. The last Nolan book you wrote was Spree way back in 1987. This was as good a heist novel as Stark or Lionel White ever wrote. Have you thought much of working the heist concept again?

MAC: My God, but you have good taste! The only work having to do with a heist that I've done in recent years is a screenplay based on SPREE. There have been several versions of that -- lower budget to high -- but I would love to get that made. Particularly if I could direct it.

 

MF: When you have a series character that is dormant in the publishing world -- is he still alive in your brain, skulking about, planning his next move?

MAC: Only in the sense that now and then an idea pops up, and I might say, "That would make a good Quarry," or "That would be right for Mallory." It's tough to keep series going, and tougher to move them to new house. I was really enjoying the Jack & Maggie Starr mysteries, my Rex Stout homage filtered through the history of comics. But I only got to do two. I have a third I would very much like to do, about the attack on comic books in the fifties as part of the McCarthy era.

But really of my characters, the one that is always with me is Heller. It's been very frustrating to put him on the back burner for almost ten years, but I needed to. First, I needed to allow enough time to pass so that I could re-launch him. And second, I had to take advantage of ROAD TO PERDITION to do several sequels and several other historical standalones. Unfortunately my publisher (Morrow) talked me into using a penname for the two stand-alones (BLACK HATS and RED SKY IN MORNING by "Patrick Culhane") and that was a bad, bad move.

 

MF: Your longest-running series is the Nathan Heller, private detective series which reaches as far back as the early 1930s. I’ve heard you’ve been writing a Heller book about Marilyn Monroe. How old is Heller in this one? How old do you plan to age him?

MAC: I just finished that book -- BYE BYE, BABY. A great pleasure writing it, though Hellers are tough beyond words to write. Heller is his "real" age, which I believe is around 57. He will age literally based upon the year of his birth, which is stated in TRUE DETECTIVE. Don't recall offhand what that is -- 1905 or 1907, around in there.

His age in this novel was a factor, but so was the year -- 1962 is a very different time frame for a classic PI. Also, it's the first time I'm doing Heller in a period of time that I vividly remember -- I was in junior high in '62. I love that era.

 

MF: Will he someday be investigating, say, Malcolm X’s murder? It might be interesting to see an old white northern man investigating the death of a young black man in the 1960s.

MAC: Heller will probably -- but not absolutely, I leave myself wiggle room -- not investigate beyond JFK's murder. Possibly RFK's. But that does mean Martin Luther King and Malcom X are possibilities. Anything after that, if readers are interested and I live long enough, would have to be investigated by Heller's son Sam, who takes over the agency in the 1970s.

 

MF: I admit I’m leading you somewhere here. You’re a baby boomer. I’ve always thought that, except for maybe Chester Himes’s Harlem novels, crime fiction in general and noir in particular, missed the mood of the 60s. It was all international spy fiction for awhile and then, in the mid 70s, noir writers like James Crumley woke up with a big 1960s hangover. You sounded much the same with your novel A SHROUD FOR AQUARIUS. Why do you think there’s this gap or do you disagree? (wow that sounds like a question from my old Social Studies teacher, sorry)

MAC: I think you'll see that BYE BYE, BABY works at filling that gap. On the other hand, there are still some 1950s cases I would like to cover.

I have also never written much about my experiences in rock 'n' roll in the sixties and seventies. We'll see.

 

MF: You also have a day job writing novelizations for movies and TV shows. What are some of the pleasures and constraints you’ve felt with these projects?

MAC: The pleasures, other than making a living, include being able to deal with some famous characters (X-FILES for example) and to do novels outside of my chosen genre (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, for instance). I've been able to write a Clancy-esque thriller (AIR FORCE ONE), a western (MAVERICK, my favorite TV show of the '50s by the way), science-fiction (WATERWORLD), fantasy (THE SCORPION KING), horror (THE MUMMY), and on and on. That stretches me. I think it prepared me for ROAD TO PURGATORY and especially ROAD TO PARADISE, more mainstream crime novels than my series work. I try very hard to make these movie novels real novels -- to seem like the novels the movie was based on.

Constraints vary project to project. Rather famously, I was forced in my novelization of ROAD TO PERDITION not to use anything that wasn't in the script, even though I created the damn thing.

 

MF: Were you ever tempted to deviate from a working script you were handed?

MAC: I stay true to the structure and intent, but I develop backstory and generally throw out and/or rework most of the dialogue. Movie dialogue and novel dialogue are different animals. I tell the inside of the story; the film tells the exterior of the story.

 

MF: Are you given more creative range with the TV-show based novels?

MAC: Yes, in the sense that the novels are not "novelizations," rather original works using the established characters. I've had many readers say they prefer my CSI and CRIMINALS MINDS to the shows. (Some readers, it should be said, who are fanatics of the shows have a different opinion.)

 

MF: Have you ever found yourself truly inspired while working on these books, thinking about your personal writing in a new way?

MAC: All my writing is personal. Inspiration is a luxury for the parttime writer.

 

MF: You also have a new, third career, finishing works-in-progress by the late Mickey Spillane. When these sorts of things pop up in the publishing world the collaborator usually never knew the deceased author (deCamp for Robert E Howard, Lustbader for Robert Ludlum, Parker for Raymond Chandler) do you think that your friendship with Spillane puts more or less pressure on you as a writer?

MAC: Collaborating with Mickey -- and that's how I view it -- is a pleasure. I have been prepping (unwittingly) for this job since I was 12 years old. I took Spillane books the way other kids took vitamins. I feel no pressure, only delight. The nature of the work is that I know Mickey trusted me to -- expected me to -- complete these works and join my talents with him. It gives me great pride when readers and reviewers admit they can't tell where Mickey endsd and I begin. Truth is, he doesn't end and I don't begin -- I use his partial manuscripts in a different way. I expand them and weave them in through what I'm doing, getting "inside" the manuscripts. THE BIG BANG, for example, began as four long finished chapters by Mickey. But I expanded them into around nine chapters, and used bits and pieces of his writing in the subsequent five chapters. It is a true collaboration, and that's the only way to understand what I'm doing.

 

MF: What new have you learned about Spillane’s writing as you’ve worked with his words?

MAC: Not much, frankly. I always knew he loved words, which is obvious in his descriptions. You mentioned poets, and he was a real poet -- I love to do Spillane-esque passages about New York. I have noticed that he writes in sub-chapters, little blocks that can be moved around. I had a lengthy false start to THE GOLIATH BONE, and I was able to use blocks from that in later chapters of the novel, even though they'd been conceived as coming early on. In other words, a scene where Hammer tangles with the feds is something that can appear almost anywhere; a scene where he flirts with Velda or some other woman can generally snap in like a Lego anywhere.

I have noticed how much Spillane has happen off-stage. He speeds the narrative by having Velda do a lot of the legwork (insert your own joke here), so often he just gets stuff handed to him. That way he doesn't have to do boring sleuthing and can save himself for sex and violence.

 

Mickey SpillaneMF: The first couple collaborations (DEAD STREET, THE GOLIATH BONE) were mostly finished before you looked at them, you’ve stated that there are several books nearly completed and some that Spillane abandoned in various stages of development. Do you ever envision a collaboration in which a story is more yours than his?

MAC: DEAD STREET lacked the last three chapters, but I did have some notes. I did polish and do some expansion in early chapters, and should have taken a "with" byline, but Charles Adrai at Hard Case wanted a sole Spillane byline, for marketing reasons. THE GOLIATH BONE is a true collaboration. Mickey had completed all but two chapters, and had done half of the final chapter, but in rough draft form -- shorter than usual. The manuscript was probably 30,000 words. So I am woven in throughout, and also edited in material from the false start. Each of these projects has different challenges. THE BIG BANG was those four long chapters, but I did have some wonderful notes, a chapter breakdown and material on the ending, which is a corker even for Mickey.

My hope is that readers will understand that these are not ghost jobs, or me "finishing" Mickey, but collaborations between two writers who loved and respected each other and their work.

Dead StreetThere are six substantial Hammer manuscripts, and these I am determined to finish. They are: THE GOLIATH BONE; THE BIG BANG; KISS HER GOODBYE; COMPLEX 90; LADY, GO DIE!: and KING OF THE WEEDS. Beyond these are another dozen or so shorter manuscripts, a chapter or two and notes in several instances. If there is interest, I'll complete these as well. Recently I did an audio novel for Blackstone, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF MIKE HAMMER VOL. 2: THE LITTLE DEATH for Stacy Keach with a full cast. Three hours. It's based on a Mickey short story but the script is all me. Great fun to do, and I just heard the finished product -- wonderful. Keach knocked the ball out of the park. It's out in December.

 

MF: Back to Quarry. I’ve heard Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai mention yet another Quarry novel coming up, this will practically double the number of novels about the hitman. Is he back with you and us for good or is each outing a potential last entry?

MAC: I will be doing QUARRY'S EX soon, and hope to do one called THE WRONG QUARRY after that. I haven't thought beyond that. The books have been selling well, and getting great reviews, and seem to have sparked some interest in my work among the younger readers who follow Hard Case Crime and the newer noir writers. I had that very much in mind, by the way -- Charles would have been content to publish reprints of my work, but I wanted to do new stuff. The new books generated foreign sales and large print hardcovers and, of course, there's a Quarry movie out there, THE LAST LULLABY, which I co-wrote (THE LAST QUARRY is a novelization of my first draft of that screenplay).

 

Max Allan CollinsMF: What can we expect next from you and when?

MAC: In March, Kensington will published YOU CAN'T STOP ME by Matthew Clemens and me. Matt co-wrote the CSI novels, the CRIMINAL MINDS, the BONES novel, and the three DARK ANGEL books. We've been writing short stories and other stuff together for twenty years. These, too, are true collaborations. He never ghosts me. I come up with an idea, we plot together, he does a short draft filled with forensics research (maybe 40,000 words) and I write the next draft (maybe 80,000 words). It's a third voice. Anyway, we've sold millions of CSI books, so we decided to come up with our own CSI-type concept. Kensington is a good fit for us, as they specialize in serial killer stuff. Our story has an America's Most Wanted type host assembling a superstar forensics team to go out on the road and find the serial killer who butchered the host's family (making him a media star). It's very, very good, I think.

Also in a collaborative vein, my wife Barb and I are continuing our "Trash 'n' Treasures" mystery series, also for Kensington. The paperback of ANTIQUES FLEE MARKET will be out soon -- it won the Best Humorous Mystery of the Year award from Romantic Times. In March the fourth one will be out, ANTIQUES BIZARRE. They are cozies, I guess, but they have an edge and are funny as hell. Jon Breen claims they are subversive spoofs, but I am not talking. Nor Barb.

THE BIG BANG will be out in the Spring, too. Any Hammer fans who were put off by GOLIATH BONE being contemporary and about the "old" Hammer will have nothing to complain about here -- it's 1964 and Mike Hammer is in fine vintage form. It's Mike Hammer on acid -- literally.

BYE BYE, BABY may be out next year, but I don't have a date yet. But it's in the editor's hands right now.

And QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE hits the stands this week.

 

MF: Great! Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. It has been a real pleasure.

 



Read our review of QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE at MostlyFiction.com


 

 


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