I never left John D. MacDonald for long.

John D. MacDonald
John D. MacDonald

I always came back.

Over the years, I would leave John D. MacDonald from time to time and wander down between the pages of books written by someone else.

But when I grew weary of formulas and wanted to read the beauty and emotion of a great story, I turned again to MacDonald. He never let me down.

John D. MacDonald did not write classics. At least, holier-than-thou never regarded them as classics. But his prose was as good as and better than most of the so-called masters. Who but MacDonald could have written: When you see the ugliness behind the tears of another person, it makes you take a closer look at your own. Or, The world was all tied together in some mysterious tangle of invisible web, single strands that reach impossible distances, glimpsed but rarely when the light caught them just right.

Darker Than AmberHe wrote pulp fiction. He wrote hard-boiled novels about hard-boiled people.

At least he did in he beginning.

And MacDonald – along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – brought the seamy, hard-boiled image of pulp fiction to a whole new level of appreciation and respect.

He wrote dozens of novels, including the Travis McGee series that made him both famous and rich. Stephen King said MacDonald was “the great entertainer of our age and a mesmerizing storyteller.” Kingsley Amis believed that MacDonald was, “by any standard, a better writer than Saul Bellow. Only MacDonald writes thrillers , and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels?”

I have always believed that the mark of a good writer and a good book is the opening line.

Take a look at John MacDonald.

No one is better.

When I first picked up a copy of his Darker Than Amber, I read: “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”

Who could put the book down then?

I was hooked.

So much unknown and so many mysteries had been buried in nineteen words.

When Geoffrey O’Brien published his study of mid-century pulp fiction, he wrote of the Travis McGee novels: They all seem to spring out of some long, hot American afternoon, an unfamiliar Cadillac gliding through the streets of a small town, a hundred tiny dramas of loyalty and betrayal, small lusts, quiet madness, interior dramas of regeneration, all set spinning about each other, meeting and meshing

tumblr_ml5ebpzuPs1ruy2doo1_1280Elmore Leonard wrote of John D. MacDonald: Thirty years ago, at a time when I was writing Westerns and my agent was trying to get me into The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s – magazines that insisted on formula plotting – I saw John D. MacDonald writing his own kind of story for Cosmopolitan, then a general audience magazine.

“I felt a strength of character in this man who would seem to be doing it his way or not at all. He was writing to please himself, casting his stories with real, everyday kinds of people and writing in a simple, straightforward style, with never a hint of pretension, never overwriting.

“And I remember thinking, That’s what I want to do someday.

“I also remember from that time John was quoted as sayig that you had to write at least a million words before you knew what you were doing. This was not encouraging when you’ve written only a few hundred thousand, in your spare time, and face the prospect of more years of learning. But John did not pull punches. Write a million words and see if you’re any good. That’s the fact of it.

“We began corresponding in 1982 – after I finally worked up the nerve to write him – and mentioned in my first letter having the strange feeling, after 30 years of writing, that I was just beginning.

“John said the feeling is a familiar one. “The learning process, thank God, continues. I can still read old stuff and know at once how I could have done it better, given another shot at it. The college age people look at me with incredulity when I tell them I am still trying to make the stuff better. If there was such a thing as total objectivity there would be no bad books written or published. … I tell them I am trying to make the author even more invisible, and keep the words and sentences shorter without triteness.“

“You can see in John’s work that he continued not only to make it better, throughout an astonishing number of titles, he broadened his scope to include mainstream novels. The most notable one in my judgment is One More Sunday, a fascinating venture into electronic religion.

“What makes his work consistently superior – besides his ability to move the plot and keep you turning pages – is the fact that it shows a definite attitude about people and what’s going on in the world. He expresses a point of view through his characters, all the while keeping the author “ever more invisible“ – which is one of the more difficult aspects of writing fiction: not allowing the reader to be distracted by the writing. At this, John was a master. I would vote him, also, the best first-person writer I’ve ever read. Travis McGee’s “I“ was never intrusive.”

John D. MacDonald always said: “I enjoy the hell of out of writing because of the rare times when it really works good. It’s like an Easter Egg hunt. Here’s fifty pages, and you say, ‘Oh, Christ, where is it? Then on the fifty-first page, it’ll work. Just the way you wanted it to, a little better than anything in that same area ever worked before You said, ‘Wow.” This is worth the price of admission.”

MacDonald wrote as though his life depended on it.

It did.

And how did he want to be remembered.

John D. MacDonald wrote his own epitaph, saying: “He hung around quite a while, entertained the folk, and was stopped quick and clean with the right time came.”

It came when he was seventy.

Bad heart.

John D. MacDonald wrote his final sentence, typed in his final period, and left us  with a deep blue goodbye.

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  • That notion of the author becoming “even more invisible” is a really intriguing concept to me these days. I had never thought of it until a few weeks ago, and now I am thinking about it whenever I try to put words on paper. it is also encouraging to hear masters like MacDonald and Leonard talk about their continuing quest to get better at the writing gig. A million words sounds about right for that initial threshold.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      When I saw Elmore Leonard’s essay on MacDonald, I immediately thought of your recent encounter, as well as your blog on authors becoming invisible. I had not heard about the concept before, but it makes a lot of sense.

    • There is no narrator in my work-in-progress, and I have had to work VERY hard to get it to be that way – the author likes to intrude to make a judgment, to describe someone or something economically but boringly, to set the scene.

      The technique of going from very distant third person to close third, and varying the distance according to the needs of the text during a scene is described well by Orson Scott Card in his Writer’s Digest book, Characters & Viewpoint. I start from there – and try to eliminate the distant third pov as completely as possible. There’s almost always a way – though it involves more words and a lot more work.

      After a while – for this book – you get much better at being invisible.

      I suspect the reason I love Travis McGee is because I would have loved MacDonald, too – the good stuff comes from SOMEWHERE.

  • Christina Carson

    Even when I know it is John D.’s ideas being shared, even when I know that his philosophy stirs the work up as would those questions when he asked them of himself, he is so good that I still believe it’s Travis McGee wrenched in thought or the kid who’s facing execution, or Stan Kimber musing with young Paul Stanial. What a mentor. What a mind.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      If anyone has writer’s block, all they have to do is read a chapter or two of John D. MacDonald, and their creative juices are flowing again.

  • Bert Carson

    Caleb,

    Thanks more than I’ll ever be able to say for the introduction to Trav and John D. – Now both will always be with me.

    Dean Koontz said of MacDonald the Master, “As a young writer, all I ever wanted was to touch readers as powerfully as John D. MacDonald touched me… He captured the mood and the spirit of his times more accurately, more hauntingly, than any ‘literature’ writer – yet managed always to tell a thunderingly good, intensely suspenseful tale.”

    Today I’ll begin a blog series – I’m not certain, but I think it will be called The Philosophy of Travis McGee. I owe you that one.

    Thanks again,
    Bert

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I can’t wait to read the series, Bert. The philosophy of Travis McGee should positively affect us all. He is the iconoclast I’ve always wanted to be.

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