Interviews


MURDER AD-LIB — Interviews by Ellen Nehr:
EDITH PARGETER (ELLIS PETERS), Summer 1991.


EN: When you wrote the first Brother Cadfael mystery, did you plan on making it a series?

ELLIS PETERS Interview

EP: Not at all. In fact, the first one was written in a slightly different style, a little lighter, and was conceived as a one off. I hadn’t intended for it go ahead. Indeed I wrote one modern tale between the first and second Brother Cadfael novels, but that’s the last time I’ve been back from the 12th Century.

EN: Will you ever do another Inspector Felse?

EP: I’d like to in a way, but somehow this series has gotten into a rhythm and keeps flowing, so it carries me from one book to the next, and it would be difficult to break the chain. Maybe some day I will.

EN: When you started the Inspector Felse series, you and Michael Innes were the only two who mentioned the home life and family of the officer. What kind of research into police practice did you have to do?

EP: I had to research into police procedures to some extent, but I must confess I was more interested in the family relations and the police officer’s relationships with the people be encounters in the case, which sometimes become personal in a way, and make the whole thing more interesting, I think.

EN: You have used archaeology in some quite unexpected places. Was this deliberate?

ELLIS PETERS Interview

EP: Not really. I suppose that I was just interested, and it became a natural thing to make use of it. There’s the one about the Roman Site (The City of Gold and Shadows) that isn’t a photocopy of but certainly is based on Uriconium.

   That’s very close, about three miles, from Shrewsb1ry where there was a ford of the river on a Roman road. We have quite a bit of an ancient city there, which suggested the site of the book.

EN: Could the water have come up and been doing the damage to the bank that disclosed the heating pipes?

EP: Yes, it could, because it is right on the Severn River, and in a flood time it certainly could. Even the inn which I’ve described there is suggested by one just a bit down the river from there.

EN: Have you always lived in that area?

EP: Yes. Within about three miles of where I live now, apart from traveling, of course.

EN: Do you speak Welsh?

EP: No, very little. Quite a lot of Welsh don’t speak it, I’m afraid. It is being taught more again, especial]y in the south, the parts that became industrialized. Welsh is less spoken than it used to be. My grandmother spoke it, but I never learned it properly.

ELLIS PETERS Interview

EN: If you had been brought up in another part of Great Britain, how different do you suppose your books would have been?

EP: I think they would have been affected by my surroundings. My writing is extremely visual. It is definitely based on where I am, since I’m describing pictures I can see in my own mind from around me.

EN: Over a period of time have you accumulated an extensive reference library?

EP: Yes, I have quite a big library because if there is a book that I want to use, I like to have it in the house to go back to. Usually, since I was born here, I’ve accumulated knowledge about the region, being interested in history. A lot of it has been historical and archaeological interest.

EN: Now that you are a well-known resident of Shrewsbury, do you find that people are bringing to your attention things that you might have had to research on your own?

EP: Yes, indeed they are. One expert actually came with his own wife to visit me and taught me to make fire. He brought flint, steel, and all the makings, and he left me flints and tinder, although charred cloth would catch.

ELLIS PETERS Interview

EN: In The Heretic’s Apprentice you described just how parchment was made. I was fascinated.

EP: Well, I got that out of a history of illuminated manuscripts. Some of the descriptions of the book and the timing of the book came from the same history. There isn’t such a gift book as I’ve described, but that wedding did take place, and the people were real; the Prince from the western empire and Princess from the East did marry that year, and there could have been a present such as that.

EN: I just finished your new book, The Summer of the Danes, and wondered why the Danes lived in Ireland.

EP: They had a small kingdom in Dublin, on and off. Sometimes they lost it; sometimes they got it back again. This all happened over a matter of a hundred years or so. They left a lot of their progeny there, and there was quite a bit of intermarriage. It’s mentioned in the book that 0wain’ s grandmother was a Danish princess.

ELLIS PETERS Interview

EN: How and when did the war between King Stephen and Queen Maud finally get settled?

EP: I hope the books may even reach that point. Everyone was exhausted with the war and fed up with it, and from the point that I’ve reached, action actually began to slacken off very much. Each side was just holding on to what it had, and eventually Stephen’s eldest son, whom he hoped would succeed him, died. That left the way rather clearer, and a lot of his own supporters began to think, “We’ve got to settle this somehow.”

   Eventually an agreement was made that Maud’s son, who became the young Henry II, should succeed to the throne, but only when Stephen died. From that time on, there was peace, but Henry II had quite a bit clearing up to do. Stephen died in 1154, and that is ten years further on from where we are now.

EN: When you finish the 12th century books that we are reading in the 20th century and know who did it and why, do you, in your mind, interpret justice as it was then in their context of right or wrong, or as the way we perceive it today?

ELLIS PETERS Interview

EP: Well, this I think is essentially the difference between secular sense of justice and the law; between the law and justice in fact and justice tempered with mercy. The Church had the privilege of tempering the secular justice, but I don’t say they did it often, by any means.

   Cadfael doesn’t take the law’s exact point of view. He makes up his own mind on what is for the best, as he did in one case where he let a murderer go away, but having laid on him the penance of remembering life long and acting differently.

   So he got his own way. It’s not secular justice, and it’s a theme I’ve taken up in other books, the conflict between the human sense of justice and what’s dictated by the law. It’s a big question.

EN: Are you a Roman Catholic?

EP: No, I’m an Anglican, but then we were all Roman Catholics, so I’ve tried to project myself.

EN: What do the Benedictines think of the books?

   EP: I have quite a number of Benedictine correspondents and even a lot of clerics and a lot of historians, and on the whole, they very much approve. And they approve of what you’ve touched on, this sense of human compassion coming into the question of justice. They’ve been a great help to me, and they’ve given me great encouragement.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 31,
       September 1991.


[UPDATE] 06-23-12. Ellis Peters wrote 13 books in her Inspector Felse series; the last one appeared in 1978. She also wrote 20 books in which Brother Cadfael appeared, two of them after this interview took place. Both she and and my good friend Ellen Nehr died in 1995.

   Those of you who are pulp collectors, and maybe even if you aren’t, you might want to take a look at a lengthy interview Laurie Powers did with Walker Martin on her blog, where many of the posts always seem to have something to do with either pulps or pulp collecting.

   Walker, of course, is an occasional contributor and a frequent commenter here on the Mystery*File blog, as regular visitors already know. Over on Laurie’s blog, the primary topic of their question and answer conversation is “My Favorite Pulps,” referring to Walker’s collection, but that’s just the starting point.

   Unfortunately Walker and I have known each other for 40 years, so I have to admit I knew all the answers he was going to give before he gave them, but it’s still interesting reading. Go, read, but do find your way back!

   Before beginning the interview below, you may want to go back and read a previous post entitled The Compleat Cases of MORGAN TAYLOR. Morgan Taylor was the actress-sleuth created by Susan Sussman and Sarajane Avidon who appeared in two well-regarded mystery novels before the death of Sarajane in 2006.

Susan Sussman

   After the profile of the Morgan Taylor the detective had been completed, I got in touch with Susan Sussman, who quickly agreed to answer a few questions for me:

Q. Can you say something about your friendship and collaborative work with Sarajane Avidon, especially the Morgan Taylor books? And my most sincere condolences on the loss of someone who appears to have been a best friend.

A. I met Sarajane many years back, between our junior and senior year of high school, when we were both enrolled in the Cherub Program at Northwestern University — Sarajane was in theater, and I was in Radio/TV/Film. I was from Chicago and she was from Parkersburg, West Virginia.

   The books came about when Sarajane was battling cancer, unable to act for a while. She was feeling depressed and I suggested that, since she was sprawled on the sofa not doing much of anything, perhaps she’d like to write a book with me about a Chicago actress. It was the perfect creative outlet for her at the perfect time.

Q. As I understand it, her input was largely, but not limited to, that of providing and describing the background of being an actor and the world of the stage, would that be correct?

Sarajane Avidon

A. How we worked was, I’d write a scene or chapter, and Sarajane would read it. Then we’d discuss it over refreshments (there was always food involved) and she would say something like “You didn’t mention theater dust. You must mention theater dust.” Then she’d arrange for us to go backstage someplace so I could smell and experience theater dust and describe it in the book.

   She was a brilliant and careful reader and brought a richness to the theatrical and angst-riddled world of Morgan Taylor.

Q. Are you a long-time mystery reader yourself?

A. I’ve been reading mysteries since I was very little. Cut my teeth on Nancy Drew mysteries. (The original old ones. She was much more independent and inventive in those years.) I love mysteries, always have, although the books on my nightstand run a wide gambit.

Q. What authors from the past or present are and have been your favorites?

A. For true-to-life characters, Stephen King; for humanity, Ray Bradbury; for humor, Susan Isaacs and Elaine Viets; for razor-sharp political commentary, Carl Hiaasen; for scary stuff, Tess Garritsen…. the list goes on and on. My nightstand is piled high with fiction and non-fiction, screenplays, plays and some sheet music I keep promising myself I’ll learn to play.

Q. Was Morgan Taylor based on any real life person? If so, was this person aware of this?

A. Morgan was entirely a figment of my imagination. As a writer, I much prefer life behind the scenes. Sarajane, the consummate actress, was all about finding the brightest spotlight in which to stand. Sarajane told me that, after the first book was published, she received calls from friends of hers who were convinced they were one character or another in the book. She never told them otherwise. But this happens with many books. Friends think they are my heroes and heroines and are certain they know the villains.

Joan Cusak

Q. If the Morgan Taylor stories were to be picked up by Hollywood for movies or TV, what actress would you most enjoy see playing her in the role?

A. I would love to see Joan Cusack in the role. In fact, I think she’d be knock-out in a weekly series based on Morgan Taylor (…sort of a Murder, She Wrote for the younger set.) Joan has the humor, the vulnerability and the talent to bring Morgan alive and make us care what happens to her.

Q. The books were received quite well, from the excerpts from the reviews. Would you agree?

A. We were blessed with wonderful and lively reviews, and our appearances in bookstores were always a great hit. What we did was act a scene from the book. Sarajane was a gifted actress and I was a superb straightman.

Q. A third book was mentioned as being in progress. Is there a chance that it will be completed?

A. At the moment, a play Sarajane and I wrote — Woman Standing — is in the hands of a Chicago theater. It was a labor of love for us both and was based on the life of Chicago artist Shelly Canton. I’m waiting to hear from the theater on that. Meanwhile, I’ve just published a children’s book and am under contract for another. I have all the research for the next Morgan Taylor book, and have outlined two others.

   But at this moment I can’t honestly say what will happen. I’m just taking things as they seem to be ready for me to do. The play was a really big push — Sarajane died soon after our second reading done with professional actors — and I’ve just recently finished incorporating her ‘notes’ from the reading into the final play. So these children’s books are like a breather for me before I gear up for the next novel.

Q. Is there anything you’d like to say or add in closing?

A. I haven’t yet been able to access your blog, so I hope my angle of response is what you were looking for. Sarajane Avidon was a fabulous actress and friend and those of us who knew her are richer for it.

Q. Your responses were exactly what I was looking for. Thanks very much for taking the time to reply.

A. You’re welcome!

  Hi Steve,

   Well, Death of a Punk seems never to actually die. I’m flattered that you went to such effort to track me down, although I liked the idea of being the 87 year old guy.

   To answer your questions:

   I wrote the book because in the 70′s, I was a big Raymond Chandler fan and also an habitué of the nascent Punk Rock scene (although we referred to it at the time as “New Wave”) in the Lower East Side of NYC. I used to hang out at CBGB’s in the early days to hear yet-to-be-signed bands like Television, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Blondie, and many other less famous ones. I simply decided to create a kind of fat, bald, failed Marlowe and drop him into the craziness of that scene.

   One band I went to see a lot was The Mumps, whose lead singer was Lance Loud of An American Family fame. I got to know his minor-celebrity mother, Pat Loud, who at the time worked at a literary agency. I mentioned to her that I’d written about 40 pages of a trashy detective novel set in the New Wave scene and she said, to my genuine surprise, to send it to her at the agency. She read it and told me that if I finished it, her agency would represent me. I was flabbergasted because I had been writing it simply to entertain myself; I had NO idea of getting it published or even of TRYING to get it published.

   Shortly after I finished it, Ann Patty, a young editor at Pocket Books (who is now executive editor at Harcourt), bought it. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or, put another way, it sank like a stone. There were pockets of high volume sales, which not-so-coincidentally were located in the only places in the US at the time where New Wave Rock was popular: NYC of course, LA & SF, but also Cleveland, Boston, Athens, GA, and Seattle. I got a lot of fan mail from those towns.

   Foreign rights were sold to Germany (where it went through two printings as Tod eines Punk with the worst cover ever; I’ve never been able to collect royalties) and France, as you found. I sold the movie rights three times because certain producers smelled an album tie-in, and I was paid by one to write a screenplay adaptation, but nothing ever came of it. Is this more than you want to know?

   Why has the price skyrocketed? Well, I started buying up copies on the Internet in the early 90′s. I refused to pay more than five bucks per copy and very few cost more than that. Gradually the prices started to climb. I think it was in 1995 that I was astonished to see that a store in Minneapolis wanted $29.95 for it. I even wrote the guy and asked what was up with that. He wrote back that he was buying up all the cheapo copies he could find because they sold for his price as fast as he could list them. In the next few years, the cheapos pretty much disappeared. Soon the average price had risen to about $50. I couldn’t believe it.

   I started getting fan mail again because, like you, readers were able to find me. Then, around 5 years ago, I saw one on abe.com for more than $100. I wrote to the vendor in San Diego and asked him why he was charging such an outlandish sum for it. He responded that every copy he listed sold immediately no matter what the price and that the $100 one had also just sold. He told me he was going to raise the price again if he came across more copies. Prices started to climb into three figures and stayed there.

   About two years ago, they started selling for lower four figures; I think the post on your blog about those prices must be correct. I can’t believe anyone would actually pay that much in any case. You can get Hemingway first editions for less. As for WHY it’s selling for so much… I think it’s because it’s set in that now-famous time and place, and many of the peripheral characters seem to be based on now-famous people, although I vehemently deny that vicious canard; any resemblance to persons living, dead, or otherwise is purely coincidental and exists wholly in the fevered imaginations of certain wacky readers. Judging from the fan mail, people seem to find it funny and entertaining too.

   Why is it scarce? When it came out, it had no advertising budget. Pocket Books was putting all their chips on the paperback edition of The World According to Garp, releasing it with six different covers and a huge promotional budget. The pleasant middle-aged ladies in the publicity department didn’t know what to make of D.o.a.P. (I even had a glowing blurb from Debbie Harry that they refused to use because they hadn’t really heard of her) and advised me to go to bookstores and buy copies to extend its shelf-life.

   They set up a few radio interviews but I did most of the promoting myself through my connections in the music world. I did manage to steal a box of promo copies from the PR office, which I distributed as judiciously as I could to media types. While it got rave reviews in hip-but-little-read places like Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, the few reviewers in the mainstream press who wrote about it were a bit nonplussed; the Denver Post paired its review of it with an alternate-history novel about World War III by an ex-general . The reviewer segued into the D.o.a.P. portion thusly: “Going from the globe to the gutter…”

   I liked that very much. If D.o.a.P. is ever re-published, I want the cover copy to read: “It Goes From the Globe To the Gutter!”

   What’s up with Who Killed the Snowman?: After an editorial meeting at Pocket Books, it was decided to change the title to W.K.t.S.? When they told me about the change, they also showed me a mockup of the cover. Basically they wanted to take a book that had to do with the edgy part of the pop music world (which they didn’t understand) and change it to the generic part of the drug culture (which they did understand).

Death of a Punk

   While no expert in marketing, I didn’t think it took much brainpower to understand that marketing a book as though it’s about one thing when it actually isn’t, pretty much guaranteed failure. I went into Ann Patty’s office, stamped my feet, flailed my arms, and pouted until she agreed to try to get it changed back to Death of a Punk. In the end, we prevailed but not before they’d registered the ISBN as Who Killed the Snowman? That’s why one can still find mention of Snowman in hoary medieval databases.

   One side story: The cover with “The Punk” was painted by the best Pocket Books house artist, whose name escapes me now. He’d done many classic paperback covers in the 60′s and 70′s. The reason the Punk’s left hand is in that goofy position is that in the original painting he was holding a cigarette.

   The same marketing geniuses who’d come up with W.K.t.S? decided that potential buyers who didn’t smoke or who wanted to quit might subconsciously be deterred from buying the book by the presence of the cigarette. As you can imagine, I stamped, flailed, and pouted again, but to no avail. They had STATISTICS, and a marketing person with stats is as immovable as a large stone and just as smart.

   Anyway, I’m sure this is much more than you wanted to know, but in the event that you would like more D.o.a.P. (or Dope, as I call it) info, don’t hesitate. And if you or one of your fellow bloggers actually READS the book, I’d love to know whether it was enjoyed or if it induced sleep…

mit freundlichen Grüßen,

   John Browner
   The Munich Readery
   Largest English-language Secondhand-book Shop in Germany
   Augustenstr. 104
   80798 München
    49 (0)89/121 92 403
   www.readery.de

   Stark House will publish its first three-fer this summer – three Gold Medal novels long in need of reprinting. I wrote the introduction to Charles Runyon’s The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed, a masterful suspense novel that puts Runyon in the top ten of GM writers in such company as Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, Vin Packer, Richard Stark, Malcolm Braly and a handful of others.

Stark House

   At the time I wrote the introduction I was told that Runyon was dead. Not so. He’s very much alive, and here’s an interview I recently had with him via email.

   [Note: This interview previously appeared in three installments on Ed’s blog. Links at the end of this M*F blog entry will lead you to a complete bibliography of Charles Runyon’s fiction and an article he has written about a book that’s never been published, Dorian-7.    – Steve]

? The obvious mystery to those who were following your career – when did you stop publishing and why?

   In 1980, Jove published my novel, The Gypsy King, which I thought represented my highest effort, a cut above the genre SF and mystery novels I had been publishing. I was never content with working at the level of my last published work, but at the same time I wasn’t sure which way to go with my future work. To fill in the time while deciding, I went back to the University of Missouri and picked up a Master’s in Creative writing, in case I might need to work before my sales picked up again.

   However, the hiatus stretched on, and teaching did not blend with writing as well as I had hoped. Writing was still my preferred profession, but the path back to publishing was a rocky one, and nobody laid down a red carpet for me any more than they had at the beginning. Somehow the word got out that I had “passed on” in 1987, and the thought intrigued me, much as it once intrigued Tom Sawyer. What if I tried to reenter the field, not as an older writer reentering the field after a long lay-off, but as a fresh new face with reams of new ideas? However, thanks to you, Ed, that experiment has now been abandoned, or left to others to carry out.

? Can you give us a sketch of your life?

   A rough sketch would show the young writer growing up on a farm in Worth County, Missouri, the most insignificant county in a not-too-significant state. I couldn’t wait to grow up and leave the farm like most boys, but ran away from home at age 16 to work on a ranch in West Texas.

   So we come full circle; 60 years later I am back in Texas. The intervening years included army service in Korea, Germany and Indiana, J-school at Missouri University. I just missed a job on the National Geographic and instead went into industrial editing. It was either that or poetry which paid nothing. While working for Mr. Rockefeller’s old outfit in Chicago an agent to whom I had been paying readers’ fees for five years – Scott Meredith – suddenly started making sales.

    I lost no time in quitting my job and announcing that I was now a full-time writer. With a new baby and no income, I borrowed a lakeside cabin and sat down to write my first book. After sending it off to my agent, I took off for the West Indies, found an almost deserted island, and lay back to await the gentle shower of royalties. It didn’t quite happen that way, but it was only a few months before the book sold to Ace; my reaction was to charter a yacht and take the wife and kid on a tour of the islands. I returned to New York suntanned but broke, still expecting the gilded life of a best-selling writer.

? How about a sketch of your publishing career? Was writing something you’d always wanted to do?

    Since I was about 8 years old, and realized how easily (comparatively) words came to me. Before that I wanted to be a doctor, until somebody told me you had to go to school for endless years. I was already making preparations when in High School I took typing; the only other “boy” in my class was a pianist.

? Do you recall your first sale?

    Of course; it was a short story called “First Man in a Satellite” to Super Science Fiction in 1958 – almost fifty years ago! This was about the time the Russians sent up Sputnik so I was undeservedly credited with being a harbinger of the Space Age. I got a personal rejection from John W. Campbell [editor at Astounding SF], with his signature slanting across the bottom of the page as if tracing the path of a tumbling tumbleweed. He disparaged the whole idea of a midget in a space ship, adding that Lester del Rey had already done it – better. Editors didn’t care about writer’s sensibilities in those days. I still treasure the letter.

Super Science

? Which gave you more satisfaction as a writer – science fiction or crime novels?

    It’s the sf novels and stories that I remember with the most affection. The crime stories and novels were more neatly wrapped up, while the sf novels and stories open onto worlds of other plot possibilities.

? What was the genesis of The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed?

    I was making notes for the book while spending the summer in my old home town of Sheridan, a place with an almost one-to-one correspondence to the Sherman of the book. The characters were pulled from the scenery of my past, specific incidents belonging to a real person could be welded to a fictional person without the need to improvise more than details of the plot. It was very liberating and exhilarating, to find that I could shape my own reality, as long as I kept it within the realm of the believable.

    Actually, the story is not as bizarre as it may seem; my home town is near the little town of Skidmore, famed as the home of the hog-stealer, arch-bully, pedophile and murderer MacElroy, who was finally “executed” by a shotgun blast in full view of thirty townspeople. Not a single one of those citizens stepped forward to identify the shooter. Someday, I may get around to doing that book.

Prettiest Girl

? Prettiest Girl is invariably likened to the novels of Jim Thompson but when I reread it recently my take was that there is a fundamental difference between your book and just about anything Thompson wrote. Your killer in control of himself – unlike many of the Thompson protagonists who seem hard-wired to be at the mercy of themselves – and he’s even a bit droll and sardonic at times. In other words, he can stand back and look at what he’s doing objectively.

   The cumulative effect of this subtly but powerfully underscores his madness. Given the verities of paperback originals, this was an original approach. Did you think of it that way? Or are you even conscious of your writing decisions? Evan Hunter always said that he tried not to analyze what he was doing. He was afraid it would hamper his spontaneity.

    I will have to read some of Jim Thompson before I comment on the difference between us. I always write in a close autobiographical style, even though I often change the pronouns to third person. When I finish a book, I always feel like a hollowed out lobster, all meat and flavor taken out, and nothing but dry pulp left inside.

    That’s the reason I usually get in a few weeks of total leisure between novels; the creative energy needs time to rise to a level where I can begin pumping again. I think Evan Hunter is right in not analyzing his methods; the creative imagination is a shy, faery creature, and doesn’t like the cold light of appraisal.

? Sometimes you sound almost dismissive of your crime fiction. Your science fiction seems to be your true love. Are you unhappy when people say they prefer your crime fiction to your sf?

    No, I just assume that these are non-sf-readers by nature. As long as I could treat these crimes as merely head games, I could get considerable pleasure out of working out the problems. Having been a police reporter, I had a good grasp of the routine and the jargon, as well as tons of material.

    But I can date exactly when my preferences changed; in 1967 my younger brother was murdered, and the whole messy scene got involved with the stupidity of Vietnam and the decay of the courts, with the result that the murderer walked out of the courtroom smirking. This was too similar to the stuff I had been doing, and although I had many projects in the works, I never felt good about doing that sort of killer-oriented thing again.

Death Cycle

? You’ve written some of the most remarkable opening chapters in suspense fiction. The first five thousand words of The Dead Cycle, for instance, put me in mind of The Doors’ “Riders on The Rain.” Except that where the song is from the innocents’ point of view, this is from the Riders pov. There’s a mythic quality – almost of the old west – of the robbery gone wrong, an elderly clerk shot dead by one of the Riders, and them now desperately trying to get to the Mexican border.

   This is so much more realistic than much of the neo-noir we see today because the turf is real and you know this turf, the small-town Midwest. But it’s the underbelly of the Midwestern small town you usually use. Was this intentional given that it’s the setting of so many of your Gold Medal novels?

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m really a fiction writer. The motorcycle story was based on an unusual honeymoon my wife and I took, riding double on a Harley through the back roads of Mexico in 1957. Add another couple, a murder, a stash of cash and some loose gash and you get The Death Cycle. It was fun to write, and to know that every bone-rattling jolt on that old Harley was paying off in hard core realism.

? The Black Moth, which is set on a college campus, is a notably different private eye novel in that the protagonist is a PI masquerading as a professor. But even here, in a more refined setting than you usually use, the writing stays hard as hell. Your books are proof that tough guys don’t have to swagger or be violent to prove that they’re tough. They’re hard asses and no less so when they don academic robes. Was Black Moth based on your early experiences teaching college courses?

    At the time I wrote The Black Moth I had never taught a college English course, but it definitely foreshadowed my later career. The idea was to have a series of vicious murders taking place amid the mannered politeness of an exclusive girl’s finishing school. And in Columbia Missouri, where I did my journalism study, there was Stephens College, the very model of such a school. My undergraduate years of dating Stephens girls paid off in some interesting characters and loads of verisimilitude. One of the fallacies of the lay person is that you can “create” characters out of whole cloth. With me, it’s more of a cut-and-paste.

Black Moth

? What was your best career experience?

    Winning a nomination for the Edgar Allan Poe award of the MWA for Power Kill.

? What was your worst?

    Having Lancer Books go belly-up just after publishing my novel of the occult, Dorian-7. I wish I’d been warned about their shaky finances. I wrote an article on the subject, “The Curse of Dorian-7,” but I never tried to get it published. [The article appears here, its first time in print.]

? You mentioned that you’ve been writing a science fiction trilogy. Have you given any thought to a crime novel?

    Many thoughts, backed up by notes, bits of dialogue, and in a few cases, almost-finished works that never quite made it to the marketplace. I’ll take another look at the material and see what I have that is timely and appropriate, if you’re interested in looking at it.

? Do you read contemporary writers? If so, name a few you feel are notable.

    I read Stephen King’s Cell, on the recommendation of my students, and found it admirable in many ways, but to me the most nearly perfect practitioner of the horror field is Peter Straub. Houses without Doors is my most recent sampling, but my all-time favorite is Ghost Story. I also enjoyed Superstition.

    John Updike’s suspense novel, The Terrorist, brings out his talent for deft characterization and subtle plot turnings, as well as being as timely as the morning paper. John Grisham is another old-timer who’s still eminently readable; The Painted House is one I recommend. Taking the whole field as my bailiwick, I’ll mention Trial, by Clifford Irving, Skins of Dead Men by Dean Inge, and Acceptable Losses by Irwin Shaw. I’d also recommend The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley. Though it’s not a genre novel, it’s a fascinating story and well-written.

? Which of your novels would you most like to see reprinted and why?

    There are at least three that might go down well with today’s readers. The Last Score was rushed to completion as a work-for-hire, for Manfred Lee and Fred Dannay, and published under their byline of Ellery Queen. I still have a paternal affection for the book, and would like to see it reprinted under it’s “rightful” parentage.

Object of Lust

   Also, there was one I wrote under the nom de plume of Mark West, which was published under the unforgettable title: Object of Lust. Another rush job, done to the background music of a wolf growling outside the door, but I think it’s worthy of another shot at the gold ring. If you recall the old limerick beginning: “There once was a hermit named Dave …” you’ll have an idea of what it’s about. And finally there’s my first one, The Anatomy of Violence, which still holds my interest despite a klutzy romantic element.

      —

Charles W. Runyon: A Bibliography

The Curse of Dorian-7

   As a short introduction and to put events into the order in which they occurred, not too long ago John Wright saw Bill Pronzini’s profile of mystery writer Robert Martin on the original Mystery*File website and got in touch with me. He and Bill had been correspondents and friends for many years, due in part to their mutual admiration of Martin, author of the PI Jim Bennett stories, before eventually losing track of each other. I was able to reunite them by email, not realizing that John Wright from South Africa was also really Wade Wright, a mystery writer in his own regard.

   After learning more about John’s career and his interests and background in a good many fields, I asked if he’d care to answer a few questions about himself, and he graciously agreed. I formulated the questions, Bill added two or three of his own, and we sent them off to John. The result of all this is what follows.   –Steve


    John Wright
John Wright about the time that
Shadows Don’t Bleed was written.

Q.  Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your career. Unfortunately (and correct me if I’m wrong) none of the mysteries have been published in the US. I’ll begin therefore with a list of all of the titles Al Hubin has for you in his bibliography of the field, Crime Fiction IV:

WRIGHT, WADE; pseudonym of John Wright, (1933- )

* Suddenly You’re Dead (n.) Hale 1964 [Bart Condor; New York City, NY]
* Blood in the Ashes (n.) Hale 1964 [Bart Condor]
* A Hearse Waiting (n.) Hale 1965 [Bart Condor; New York City, NY]
* Until She Dies (n.) Hale 1965 [Bart Condor; California]
* Blonde Target (n.) Hale 1966 [Bart Condor; New York City, NY]
* Shadows Don’t Bleed (n.) Hale 1967 [Paul Cameron; California]
* The Sharp Edge (n.) Hale 1968 [Paul Cameron]
* No Haloes in Hell (n.) Hale 1969 [Paul Cameron]
* Two Faces of Death (n.) Hale 1970 [Bart Condor]
* Don’t Come Back! (n.) Hale 1973 [Calhoun]
* The Hades Hello (n.) Hale 1973 [Paul Cameron; Los Angeles, CA]
* It Leads to Murder (n.) Hale 1981 [California]
* Death at Nostalgia Street (n.) Hale 1982 [New England]
* The Girl from Yesterday (n.) Hale 1982 [Calhoun; U.S. Midwest]

Faces

   I have a confession to make. While Bill has many of your books and has read them, at the present time I don’t have any of them, or if I do, I don’t have access to them. I’ll defer to you to tell us something about them. I’m going only by the titles, but I’m willing to guess that both Bart Condor and Paul Cameron are private eyes. How close am I?

A.  As close as you can get. Condor was the first, and there is no doubt at all I’d been influenced by Mickey Spillane and his Mike Hammer. In fact, it was probably Mickey who really got me started.

    I’d written to him, care of New American Library, to say thanks for a lot of very enjoyable reading. Mickey replied by way of a pretty long letter that ended with: “Keep writing and make lots of money.” At the time I was knocking out an occasional article or short story, but that was it.

Leads

Q.  Tell us more about some of the individual books?

A. I guess the “make lots of money” bit must have stuck somewhere in the thing I call a mind, because a year or so later —

   I was holding down a job as General Sales Manager for a nation-wide engineering company, often putting in eleven hours a day. I’d recently married and before doing so had contracted to have a house built in a place called Western Hills, Port Elizabeth. I woke up one morning with the realization that for the first time in my life I owed money, and the feeling wasn’t at all comfortable. Even more uncomfortable was the knowledge that, though pretty good at my job, I did not enjoy working for a boss.

   I’ve forgotten what it was all about, but there was a morning when I had a blow-up with my boss. At lunchtime I drove home and spent two hours hammering my Olivetti portable — completing the first two chapters of Suddenly You’re Dead. A couple of weeks later I finished it and sent it to a New York agent who felt it was marketable but needed some fixing — for a price. Declining the offer, I had the MSS sent to London International Press, a recently established firm of literary agents. They agreed to handle the work and sold it to Robert Hale Limited, whose contract included first option on the next three books.

   Suddenly You’re Dead paid off the mortgage on the house.

Sharp

   Like most everything else that followed it was written with an eye on the clock. Working in the engineering, construction, and contracting fields has created a habit of measuring everything terms of time, material and reward. Usually a book was written at the rate of a chapter a night, sometimes more, and seldom consecutively. Often I’d be away from home, not able to get back to my desk for days. Perhaps, had conditions been different, had I devoted more time to them, the books may have been a little better than they are. But that’s water under the bridge and I take the rap for everything.

   I hated the hypocrisy of the business world, the brown-nosing and backstabbing, and quit some 30 years ago. After doing so the Company asked that I consider the post of a Project Specialist — a fancy name for trouble-shooter. I submitted a proposal, which I expected to be thrown out. It wasn’t, and I signed a six-month contract that had me driving or flying all over the country, and away from home from Monday morning until late Friday night. Since then I’ve been freelancing.

Q.   Bill considers Death at Nostalgia Street, whose protagonist is editor of a string of movie nostalgia magazines, to be your best novel. Do you agree with him?

A.  I believe Bill would be a better judge than me, so I’d have no trouble accepting his opinion. Certainly I enjoyed writing that one, possibly because I’d always been interested in the publications Nostalgia Street Enterprises handled. Then, too, I’d developed a liking for stories played out in places other than big cities.

Nostalgia

Q.  When did you first start writing? And why did you sign yourself Wade Wright rather than John Wright?

A.  I imagine it started in grade school. I disliked the prescribed reading the school offered, preferring comic books, pulps, Leslie Charteris, Earl Derr Biggers, and a couple of others. Frequently I’d catch hell for bringing comics or pulps to school, to trade with a couple other kids.

   What I liked least of all were the essays we were required to write . . . stuff like “My Holiday On The Farm.” Most kids I knew had never seen a farm. But when an open subject was available I didn’t mind a bit. Afterwards, in spite of receiving good marks, I’d be lectured about writing of gangsters, fascist agents or spies, warned that with those sort of notions I’d very likely wind up as a delinquent, or worse.

   As for the Wade Wright tag … it was chosen essentially to keep my private and business lives completely separated.

Suddenly

Q.  You live in South Africa. Have you always lived there?

A.  Most of my life. I spent two years bumming around what was then the Rhodesias — now Zambia and Zimbabwe — keeping one step ahead of the immigration authorities, working at anything to make a buck. In those days that part of Africa was often referred to as God’s Country. Everything was plentiful, and cheap. Jaguars were nearly as common as Fords! I instructed at a judo school, performed as a nightclub photographer, raced stock cars, and somehow became involved with contributing to the sports pages of a newspaper. On occasion I sold short-shorts to another weekly.

   On my twenty-first birthday I woke up with a pretty bad hangover, the equivalent of $2.40 in my pocket, and not a friend in sight. Lots had to be learned the hard way.

Q.  Why did you choose to set all of your mysteries in the US? Have you ever visited here?

A.  Though I lived in a country that was still a colony of The British Empire, and was born from Irish and Welsh stock, I’ve always identified more with the US than Britain. Possibly early reading habits and a love of movies helped a lot. Yes, I’ve been to the States, but it was a long while ago. Always intended returning, possibly for good, but moral obligations determined otherwise.

Until

Q.  What mystery writers had the most influence on you in your writing career? Do you have any favorite authors today? Are there “forgotten” writers whom you’d most like to see back in print?

A.  They all had some influence, I’m sure. I was probably 14 or 15 when I found cheap hardback editions of Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely, and they steered me onto yet another path. As mentioned earlier, it was Mickey Spillane who really got me writing. But the writer I really hold in high regard is Howard “John Evans” Browne.

   Of today’s writers Bill Pronzini has to be my favorite.

   There are many I’d like to see back in print, especially Robert Martin, and three other authors whose books or stories have always found special places on my shelves — William Campbell Gault, Thomas B. Dewey, and Jack Finney.

Q.  As I understand it, you grew up listening to the radio. What we call “old-time radio” here in the US did not last as long as it did in South Africa. Tell us about some of your favorite shows, and in particular, for those not familiar with the story, what was your part in saving the South African version of The Avengers for posterity?

   The Avengers
Donald Monat as John Steed and
 Diane Appleby as Emma Peel –
    South Africa’s Avengers.

A.  Early days of South African radio were fashioned after the style set by the BBC -– British Broadcasting Corporation — so for a long while, for me, a radio was but another piece of furniture. Then, one night I heard these mysterious voices and perhaps a scream, and for the first time gave the radio real attention. I’ve no idea what the show was, but a jaded memory suggests it might well have been an adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s Grey Face. But it wasn’t until the introduction of commercial radio, by way of Springbok Radio, that I really began to enjoy the medium.

    The reason is easy to explain. Years earlier I’d found three back issues of the American magazine Radio Mirror on sale at Woolworth’s for 5 cents each. (Still have them.) Those magazines contained articles about the Grand Ole Opry, Perry Mason, Dr. Christian … the logs listed The Shadow, The Fat Man, Box 13 … That, I figured, was radio.

   Springbok Radio offered many of those shows, Bold Venture, Richard Diamond — and the likes of Nightbeat, The Hidden Truth, and Superman, canned in Australia. And, of course, the soaps.

   I’d started recording these shows and trading them with American OTR collectors. Along the way I came in contact with a legally blind fellow in New York who was anxious to secure copies of The Avengers, a locally produced radio series based on the British TV series. I had no idea then that a number the shows I recorded would turn out to be the only copies saved on tape. Since then a great many South African shows I recorded and traded have turned up in the lists of OTR dealers.

Q.  You were also involved with early comic book fandom. How did that come about?

A.  The day my older sister brought home a copy of Superman #4. I was immediately hooked; afterwards devouring any (American) comic book I could get my hands on. A consequence of this was that I could read a little before starting school, and that forever after, most required reading matter would seem tame and boring.

   I never knew his name then, but Joe Simon’s work on Blue Bolt, really grabbed me. A long time later I’d discover his Captain America, Stuntman, Boys Ranch, and other features. Instinctively, I always believed that he, Joe Simon, was the creator of Captain America, but it was not until the release of his book, The Comic Book Makers, that I found this to be fact.

   And it was Joe Simon who introduced me to Comics Fandom. I’d stumbled across his name in Writer’s Market, listed as editor of Sick, and wrote to him, asking if he were the Joe Simon who’d produced so much truly great stuff for the comics. Indeed he was, and not only did he provide an immediate reply, he also sent sample copies of Sick. It so happened that my letter had arrived within a short time of him receiving the first issue of Alter Ego, the first of the comics’ fanzines.

   Mr. Simon thought I’d be interested and provided the address of the publisher, Dr. Jerry G. Bails, who passed away in November 2006, at the age of 73. Jerry also wasted no time in contacting me and shooting across the debut issues of his fanzine. The manner of production — printed on a Ditto Duplicator — intrigued me. We had such a machine in the office, but as far as I was concerned it was strictly for printing inter-office notices or price lists. I got hold of a master and a few sheets of duplicating carbon, knocked out a cover and for lack of a better name titled it The Komix.

   The cover came out pretty well. But now, with 200+ copies printed there seemed to be a need for a story to fit it. Eventually I had about 40 pages to staple together into a fanzine. What I didn’t know was that it would the first comics fanzine to be published outside of the US. Nor that on eBay copies of the second issue would one day sell for as much as $70.00 each.

   I published only two issues of The Komix, had planned a third, but pressure of work was really cutting into my time. Often I’d be in four major cities in the same week. And then Suddenly You’re Dead was sold and I was committed to produce more.

Q.  Tell us about your series of Western novels published as by Ray Nolan?

A.  These were started when my publisher opted to quit mysteries. Like most boys I loved the B-Westerns. Also the pulps such as Fifteen Story Western, Dime Western, Texas Rangers, etc. So the transition wasn’t difficult and I enjoyed doing them. What I didn’t enjoy was an editor trying to maintain political correctness, oft times even endeavoring to eliminate references, which might be considered even remotely offensive.

Nolan

   The pseudonym, by the way is derived from two men I have always greatly admired. My friend, singer songwriter and actor, the late Ray Whitley, and the legendary Bob Nolan, who penned such Western classics as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, “Cool Water”, and so many others.

Q.  You’ve done quite a few radio scripts for South African radio and short fiction for S.A. publications. Name some of the programs you’ve written for and the magazines in which you’ve been published. Did you find short stories and radio scripts easier to write than novels?

A.  Writing for radio was fun — and lucrative. I’d tried years back to break into the medium but it was something of a closed club. Finally I gave up. About 30 years ago, at a time when all shows on commercial radio were from local production houses, I happened to listen to a particular show and while doing so came up with a story idea. Next day I hacked it out and sent it to Springbok Radio’s head office. There, a fellow named Ben Swart, was good enough to write and tell me that the series was contracted and did not accept outside contributions. He had, however, taken the liberty to send my script to André Bothma, a producer operating in Cape Town. André bought it and asked for more, and soon a very enjoyable relationship was established, though I never ever met him or attended any recording session.

   The real break came when André phoned to say he’d like me to write for The Deciding Factor, a 45-minute show that aired on Sunday nights and attracted more listeners than any other. Could I start off with three scripts? He suggested themes for two and left the third for me to choose.

   “When will you need them?” I asked.

   “Oh, by next Friday will be fine.”

   And that’s how it went. I wrote about 200 scripts for The Deciding Factor, Suspense, Radio Theatre, Tuesday Theatre, and others. Contracts were more than extremely fair. Fees continually rose, and they covered two broadcasts within a period of 14 days. If a show was again aired after that period the writer was paid 50% of his current fee.

   André was an innovator and one of the best in the business. Never afraid to stick his neck out he’d try anything, and we had fun using werewolves and banshees, and even stories like Charley’s Amazing TV Set. Good times. Fun times.

   The first two stories I ever wrote and sold were to a new magazine titled Yours. It boasted the worst covers I have ever seen on any magazine. I was 15 at the time, but already working. Unfortunately neither were published because Yours went belly-up. Ten years afterward, or perhaps even later, I found one of the stories, changed the name from “Ain’t Nobody Honest?” to “Stopover At Nathan,” and a British agent sold it to London Mystery Magazine. It was subsequently reprinted, but I no longer have any record of it.

   When we sold our home at Bluewater Bay, a number of cartons got “lost” in moving, among them recorded tapes of the radio shows for which I’d written, manuscripts, and lots of personal and valued correspondence.

   Other stories have appeared in such local slicks as Family Radio & TV, Fair Lady, You … feature articles in Weekend Post, Leisure, etc – usually under other pseudonyms. Articles on show business personalities have been published in the US, in Under Western Skies, Nemesis, Screen Thrills, Classic Images, and possibly others.

   I’ve found scripting for radio the easiest. Usually I could get a story finished in a day. It was also less hit-and-miss than writing for magazines. The entire manner of conducting business was also completely professional. Acceptances were fast, and your check arrived within 30 days. The downside of it was that often the broadcast sounded nothing like the sounds heard in one’s head when pounding the typewriter.

Q.  Overall, what’s given you the most pleasure in your writing career?

A.  The work and the people with whom it has brought me in contact. Most gratifying has been to find that those of real substance are invariably the most down to earth.

Until

     —

SHORT STORY BONUS. I’ll let John set the stage:

   A tale’s attached to this short.

   A colleague asked me about plotting, and while explaining what I did, worked out a complete plot for him – based upon his habit of visiting the pub in question. He never used it, which was no surprise.

   On a Sunday morning some months later, I remembered the thing, made a few changes, and put it on paper … with no idea what I’d do with it. The very next week I received a letter from a friend — possibly Bill — telling me about the new Black Mask, suggesting I might think of sending them something.

   I sent “Waiting,” and they bought it right away. But then they shut down but paid a kill fee, returning all rights. Later still it was accepted by Black Lizard, but I heard no more from that end. Maybe I should have followed up.

   Anyway, though it has earned some good money, the story has never yet seen print. If you find it the least bit interesting, you’re free to link it to your site.

UPDATE [02-24-07]  Four additional cover scans have been added since the interview was first posted.

   In case you haven’t read or heard about it already, Stephen Marlowe, author of the Chester Drum series, recently appeared on Ed Gorman’s blog, telling the story of how he and Richard Prather, author of the Shell Scott PI novels, got together and wrote Double in Trouble, their magnum opus in which their two characters met and cracked a case together, after first cracking their heads together, thinking that each of them was on the other side.

Double

   The story is fascinating, and by all means, you should go read it. What I don’t know is whether you should read Marlowe’s long reminiscing story first, or to give it some additional background, you might want to read J. Kingston Pierce’s post on The Rap Sheet site before you stop over at Ed’s. Jeff has a great knack of finding a news item elsewhere on the blog and writing about it on his own, adding as he does so a profusion of links and insights to the original post, wherever it may have been. It’s one of the few sites where I stop by everyday, and Ed Gorman’s is another. With his long career in mystery fiction and other genres, Ed knows the authors and the publishers, and he has many well-formed opinions and perspectives of the field, all of which spills over into his daily posts.

   Returning to Marlowe and Prather’s work together, I’m not sure if this the first example where two authors joined forces (and characters) in a novel, sharing a joint byline together. In 1963, Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice published People Vs. Withers and Malone, a collection of short stories in which their detectives, Hildegarde Withers and John J. Malone either shared or battled wits together. Most of the stories were written before 1959, which is when Double in Trouble first came out, but whether or not that counts, I don’t know.

   I’ve asked this question before, I know I have. What I don’t know is if I received an answer or not. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, as some wise philosopher once said.

   Here’s another question. Richard Prather’s passing has been widely reported on various blogs and newsgroups, but as far as I know, it has yet to have been noted by the mass media. Why not? If you were to Google “richard prather obituary” as I did just now, the piece I posted on the M*F blog a full week ago today is the first one to come up. Why is that? It looks nice on my resume, I suppose, but come on. I’d agree that at the time of his death Mr. Prather was not a major player in the world of mystery fiction, but he was still certainly a major figure, having sold millions and millions of his (mostly) wacky private eye adventures, second certainly in the 1950s only to Mickey Spillane. Why has the rest of the world ignored his passing?

   One more question, and one that’s less of a rant. Prather is gone, but Stephen Marlowe, at the age of 79, is thankfully still with us. Of the major (or even the minor) Gold Medal writers of the 1950s, who else are still alive? Vin Packer (Marijane Meaker) for one, I believe, and she will be 80 this year. Others?

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