Grillling Ed McBain
Published: January 21, 2002
|Grilling Ed McBain|
Evan Hunter: I'm often asked why I chose to use the name Ed McBain on my crime fiction. I always respond that when I first started writing the 87th Precinct novels …
Ed McBain: I thought I was the one who wrote the 87th Precinct novels.
EH: The point is …
McB: The point is, we chose the McBain pseudonym because we didn't want to mislead people.
EH: Mislead them how?
McB: Into believing they were buying a mainstream novel, and then opening the book to find a man with an axe sticking out of his head.
EH: Yes. But in addition to that, mysteries back then were considered the stepchildren of literature, and …
McB: They still are, in many respects.
EH: You surely don't believe that.
McB: I believe that a grudging amount of respect is given to a good mystery writer. But if you want to win either the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, stay far away from corpses among the petunias.
EH: You've been writing about corpses among the petunias …
McB: Other places, too. Not only in flower beds.
EH: For 33 years now. You've remarked that you begin work at 9 in the morning and quit at 5 in the …
McB: Don't you?
McB: Just like an honest job.
EH: But I wonder if you can share with us how you manage such a regimen. It must require a great deal of discipline.
McB: No. Discipline has nothing whatever to do with it. Discipline implies someone standing over you with a whip, forcing you to do the job. If you have to be forced to write, then it's time to look for another job. If you don't love every minute of it, even the donkey work of endless revisions, then quit.
EH: Do you make endless revisions?
McB: Not endless, no. One of the most important things about writing is to know when something is finished.
EH: When is it finished?
McB: When it works.
EH: But how many revisions do you make?
McB: As many as are required to make the thing work. A good piece of fiction works. You can read it backward and forward, or from the middle toward both ends, and it will work. If a scene isn't working, if a passage of dialogue isn't working …
EH: What do you mean by working?
McB: Serving the purpose for which it was intended. Is it supposed to make my hair stand on end? If my hair isn't standing on end, the scene isn't working. Is it supposed to make me cry? Then there had better be tears on my cheeks when I finish it.
EH: Do you make these revisions as you go along, or do you save them all up for the end?
McB: I usually spend the first few hours each morning rewriting what I wrote the day before. Then, every five chapters or so, I'll reread from the beginning and rewrite where necessary. Happily, nothing is engraved in stone until the book is published. You can go back over it again and again until it works.
EH: There's that word again.
McB: It's a word I like.
|EH: How do you start a mystery novel?|
McB: How do you start a mainstream novel?
EH: With a theme, usually.
McB: I start with a corpse, usually. Or with someone about to become a corpse.
EH: Actually, though, that's starting with a theme, isn't it?
McB: Yes, in that murder is the theme of most mysteries. Even mysteries that start out with blackmail as the theme, or kidnapping, or arson, eventually get around to murder.
EH: How do you mean?
McB: Well, take a private eye novel, for example. When you're writing this sort of book, it's not necessary to discover a body on page one. In fact, most private eyes—in fiction and in real life—aren't hired to investigate murders.
EH: Why are they hired?
McB: Oh, for any number of reasons. Someone is missing, someone is unfaithful, someone is stealing, someone is preparing a will, or inheriting money, or settling his son's gambling debts, or what have you. But hardly any of these reasons for employment have to do with murder. In fact, the odd thing about private-eye fiction is that the presence of the PI on the scene is usually what causes a murder. Had the PI not been hired, there'd have been no body.
EH: What about other categories of mystery fiction?
McB: Such as?
EH: Well, Man on the Run, for example. Is it necessary to start with a body in this type of story?
McB: That depends on why the guy is running, doesn't it?
EH: Why would he be running?
McB: Because he did something.
EH: Like what?
McB: Anything but murder. If he's done murder, you can hardly ever recover this guy; he's already beyond the pale, so forget him as a hero. I would also forget rape, kidnapping, terrorism, child abuse, and arson as crimes to consider for your hero. But if he's committed a less serious crime—such as running off with a few thousand dollars of the bank's money—then the police are after him, and he must run. And running, he meets a lot of different people, one of whom he usually falls in love with, and experiences a great many things that influence his life and cause him to change—for the better, we hope.
EH: That's what fiction is all about, isn't it? Change?
McB: I like to think so.
EH: But surely there are dead bodies in a Man-on-the-Run novel.
McB: Oh, sure. Along the way. I'm merely saying that in this sub-genre of Man on the Run, it isn't essential to start with a corpse.
EH: Are there other sub-genres?
McB: Of Man on the Run? Sure. We were talking about a man who'd actually done something. But we can also have a man who's done absolutely nothing.
EH: Then why would he be running?
McB: Because the something he didn't do is usually murder. And that's where we do find a corpse. Immediately. For the police to find. So that they can accuse our man, and come looking for him, which prompts him to flee, fly, flew in order to solve the murder and clear his name while of course falling in love with someone along the way.
EH: A Man on the Run can also be a person who knows something, isn't that so?
McB: Yes. Where the body is buried, or who caused the body to become a body, or even who's about to become a body. Dangerous knowledge of this sort can cause a person to become a man who knows too much and who must flee north by northwest in order to escape becoming a body himself.
EH: On the other hand, it isn't necessary that he really be in possession of dangerous knowledge, is it?
McB: No. As a matter of fact, he can know absolutely nothing. In which case, he merely appears to know something which the bad guys thing he actually does know.
EH: And this semblance of knowledge becomes even more dangerous to him than the knowledge itself would have been because he doesn't even know why someone wants him dead.
McB: In either case, a body is the essential element that sets the plot spinning.
EH: A body, or a substitute for one. The body doesn't have to be an actual stiff, does it?
McB: No, it can be what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin. I prefer the real thing, but there are many successful thrillers that utilize to great effect a substitute corpse.
EH: Can you give us some examples?
McB: Well, the classic Woman in Jeopardy story, for example, may very well be Wait Until Dark, where a blind woman unknowingly carries through customs a doll in which the bad guys have planted dope. They want the dope back. So they come after her.
EH: That's a woman in jeopardy, all right.
McB: In spades.
EH: A gender reversal of Man on the Run.
McB: Which all Woman in Jeopardy stories are. In this case, the substitute corpse is a doll—a graven lifeless image of a human being. The woman doesn't know where the body is buried, but they think she does. Without the doll—that is, without the corpse—there'd be no reason to stalk and terrify this woman, and there'd be no thriller.
EH: And in much the same way that our Man on the Run learns and changes from his hair-raising escapades, so does our Woman in Jeopardy become stronger and wiser by the end of her ordeal.
McB: Leaving the reader or the viewer feeling immensely satisfied.
EH: Let's get back to the way you begin one of your mysteries.
McB: With a corpse, yes. Well, actually, before the corpse, there's a title.
EH: I find titles difficult.
McB: I find them easy. I look for resonance. A title that suggests many different things. For example, the title Ice seemed to offer limitless possibilities for development. Ice, of course, is what water becomes when it freezes. So the title dictated that the novel be set during the wintertime, when there is ice and snow…ah. Snow. Snow is another name for cocaine. So, all right, there'll be cocaine in the plot. But in underworld jargon, to ice someone means to kill him. And ice also means diamonds. And, further, ice is the name for a box-office scam in which tickets to hit shows are sold for exorbitant prices. The title had resonance.
EH: A lot of people had trouble with one of my titles.
McB: Which one?
EH: Love, Dad.
McB: That's because it's a terrible title, very difficult to say. You have to say, "My new book is called Love Comma Dad." Otherwise, no one will know what you're talking about.
EH: Most people thought the title was Dear Dad.
EH: I don't know why. Actually, I thought Love, Dad was a wonderful title.
McB: You should have called it No Drums, No Bugles.
McB: Were there any drums or bugles in it?
McB: There you go.
EH: Tell me where you go after you've got your title and your corpse.
McB: I write the first chapter. Or the first two or three chapters. As far as my imagination will carry me until it gives out.
EH: Then what?
McB: I'll outline the next few chapters ahead.
EH: Not the whole book?
EH: Why not?
McB: Because in mystery fiction, the reader never knows what's going to happen next. If helps if the writer doesn't quite know, either—if what happens is as much a surprise to him as it is to the reader.
EH: Isn't that dangerous?
McB: If it doesn't work, you can always go back and change it.
EH: As I understand it, then, you keep outlining as you go along.
McB: Yes. Whenever I feel a need to move things along in a certain direction. Which, by the way, may change the moment the characters get there and discover things I didn't know they'd discover.
EH: I always love that moment.
McB: Which moment?
EH: When the characters do just what the hell they want to do.
McB: When they come alive, yes.
EH: That's when you know you've got a book. That's when you know these aren't just words on paper.
McB: A lot of writers talk about how awful it is to be a writer. All the suffering, all the pain. Doesn't anyone find joy in it?
EH: I do.
McB: So do I.
EH: You once said … or we once said …
McB: We once said …
EH: … when asked which qualities we considered essential for a writer of fiction today …
McB: Yes, I remember.
EH: We said …a head and a heart.
McB: Yes. The head to give the work direction, the heart to give it feeling.
EH: Would you change that in any way now?
McB: I would only say please, please, please don't forget the heart. #
To learn more about Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, visit his Web site.
Photos courtesy of Evan Hunter.