In April, the Mystery Writers of America named Max Allan Collins a Grand Master, the organization’s peer-voted lifetime achievement award. Collins has had a prolific and often eclectic career. The Iowa Writers Workshop graduate has written more than one hundred books, has had a long career as a comics writer including, most famously, the Road to Perdition saga, has been a screenwriter and director of fiction and documentary films, written audio dramas and nonfiction books. Last year his series of novels about the hitman Quarry was adapted into a television series on Starz. The series was set in the 1970s as the character returns from Vietnam and Collins began writing about the character at that time as a contemporary crime series, and he continues to write the character—though those stories set in the 70s now qualify as historical fiction.
Collins’s best work is to be his historical novels. His Nathan Heller novel series, which began with True Detective, features the private eye tackling everything from the Lindbergh baby kidnapping to the JFK assassination to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. It may sound contrived, but Collins manages to insert a fictional character through heavy research, sifting through the truth of the case and, in the end, presenting a plausible account of what happened. Although in some cases, like the deaths of Anton Cermak and John Dillinger, it’s not what the historical record claims happened. I’ve interviewed Collins a few times over the years and we spoke about his time at the University of Iowa, his memories of Richard Yates, and some of the ideas and themes in his work throughout his career.
The Rumpus: You attended the University of Iowa and the writers workshop. Did you enter the program wanting to write crime novels?
Max Allan Collins: I lived then, as I live now, in Muscatine, Iowa. Iowa City, with the University of Iowa, is thirty-five miles away. I was well aware that the most famous writing school in America was in my backyard, and I also knew that Kurt Vonnegut—who wasn’t the household name he is now, but was building a cult following—taught there. In addition to mystery fiction, I loved the black comedy of that period, specifically Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and all of Vonnegut’s stuff. So there was no doubt in my mind I’d go there—though Vonnegut’s last year at the Workshop was the year before my first. (He did return for a reading of his new, in-progress work: something called Slaughterhouse Five).
For two years I went to community college in Muscatine, largely to keep my rock band together, then transferred to the University of Iowa. The Writers Workshop is a graduate program, but they had one undergraduate section. I went to Iowa City to look up the instructor, a guy named Richard Yates I’d never heard of. Of course, he was a famous mainstream writer and is even better known now. I enthusiastically handed him the manuscript of my novel Mourn the Living, and babbled about my desire to write crime fiction in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler. Yates looked at me with sad compassion and said he’d take a look at it, but didn’t want me to hold out hope—the Workshop was for serious writers. I went back home, shot down, my world crumbling. A few days later Yates called me and said, “I owe you an apology. I read your novel and you’ve done a professional job that the rest of the entrants don’t begin to approach. You’re clearly serious and I would be honored to have you in my class.” He added that he and his wife always watched The Carol Burnett Show, and told me how much enjoyment it gave him. He said, referring to my novel, that it reminded him that there was nothing wrong with being an entertainer.
The postscript to the above anecdote is that I wrote Bait Money in his undergraduate class, which I submitted to the Workshop when I applied for the graduate program. At the Workshop office, I was told I had been turned down and my manuscript was handed to me, but accidentally included my evaluation—I had been rejected by a grad student who wrote, “We don’t approve of this kind of writing at the Workshop.” I went to Yates and he was furious. He went around the grad student to the head of the department, John Leggett, and he and Leggett and another instructor read the manuscript, and admitted me to the Workshop. Leggett was later my advisor. Yates was my mentor throughout my Workshop days, giving me much great criticism, getting me my first agent, and guiding me to other Workshop instructors who would be copacetic. Still, there was a lot of prejudice against crime and mystery fiction, particularly among the students. Ironically, within five years Hammett and Chandler were being taught in the Workshop’s “Understanding Fiction” class. And I was the only writer in the Workshop in that period to sell a novel while still enrolled. Two novels, actually.
Rumpus: You’ve written lots of contemporary stories, but you have this passion for period pieces? What is it about historical stories that fascinates you?
Collins: First, I was a big reader of historical fiction as a kid—The Three Musketeers was the first novel I ever read. I loved Samuel Shellabarger, who wrote Prince of Foxes and Captain from Castille. That’s where the notion of inserting a hero into history came from. I also always liked history, and books and movies dealing with history. On TV there was Wyatt Earp and The Untouchables.
Second, I was somebody who trained to write private eye novels and then the field evaporated on me—the Bogart and even the Peter Gunn kind of PI were old-hat, and those turbulent times didn’t seem right for the trench coat set. Then one day, probably around 1974, reading The Maltese Falcon—published in 1929, the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—it occurred to me that the classic private eye had been around long enough to exist in history. That Phillip Marlowe didn’t have to meet an Al Capone type—Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type. The next step, inevitably, was to use the classic private eye in a famous unsolved or unresolved mystery. Chicago’s Cermak assassination seemed a natural.
Rumpus: In many of your books war plays a key role. Quarry was a sniper suffering from PTSD who becomes a hitman—which went from subtext to something explored more explicitly in the TV show. Million-Dollar Wound was in two parts, before Heller fought in World War II and after he returned, and really dramatized how it changed him. There are other examples, but you were in college when the lottery took place; how did the Vietnam War affect you?
Collins: The Vietnam War hung over everything—anyway, the draft did. I was classified 4-F. I had terrible migraine headaches which were debilitating, so it was no dodge. Many of my friends went, and some died. My good friend John McRae is to some degree the basis of the Quarry character. His wife betrayed him similarly. He was a combat Marine—a machine-gunner in the door of a helicopter. He went down in a crash and should have died. He would stay with me on leave and often round up guns I was using in the book, for us to go shooting at a dump, so I’d know the feel of what I was writing about. He would go to class—the Writers Workshop with Yates!—in full uniform, ready to be called “baby killer.” No one dared. He also went with my band on gigs and, at truck stops on the way home, wearing a long hippie wig and a Neil Young fringed coat, would wait for truckers to insult him and then throw them against a wall. When he came home, he had terrible problems fitting in, finding his way. He eventually re-upped.
Rumpus: You grew up in eastern Iowa, and as you mentioned and you still live there. What’s kept you there all these years?
Collins: Lots of reasons. In part we stayed because we had family here. I’m an only child and was inclined to stay near my parents, and my wife Barb’s mother had health issues. We wanted to be handy. The cost of living was nice, and there were fewer distractions. Also, I’ve usually had a band going. I saw no reason that I couldn’t write anywhere, though Don Westlake and others advised me to move to either New York or California. There was no Internet then, not even fax. But I just sort of never left. Writers don’t get transferred.
Rumpus: One reason I ask is because so many of your characters are rootless or homeless. Is that just a question of recognizing what makes for good drama?
Collins: Interesting question. But all of those characters have father issues as well. And of course I write about classic hardboiled figures—who are outsiders. How the outsider interacts with society makes interesting sparks.
Rumpus: You’re a musician and many of the writers you like have a musicality to their language. When you’re writing or editing are you thinking about the prose in musical terms?
Collins: My father was a high school music teacher who was a big deal in this state—his choruses won lots of competitions, he directed a men’s chorus for fifty years that were the national champion Elks chorus. While I did some sports, my chief interests were in the arts, and music was a huge part of that. I won state three years straight as a tenor vocal soloist, I was in the only quartet that went to All-State three years running, and had the lead in both Camelot and My Fair Lady. I started my first rock band in 1965. I do think there’s music in my prose, but I don’t often get that from reviewers, who rarely see me as a stylist. I think that’s because the guys they go gaga for overwrite embarrassingly—no, I won’t say who. Don Westlake taught me to admire invisible writing; Mickey Spillane taught me not to be too goddamn invisible.
Rumpus: You’ve blogged about this, so I don’t feel like I’m intruding on anything too private, but in the past two years you’ve had a number of health issues and you became a grandfather. Have these events made you rethink your work or what you want to do going forward?
Collins: Before my health problems set in, I did a number of projects that were, I guess, bucket-list ones: The Wyatt Earp/Al Capone novel, Black Hats. Red Sky in Morning, about my father’s World War II Naval experiences. Those were published “by Patrick Culhane,” but Brash Books is bringing them out under my byline, with Red Sky now carrying my preferred title, USS Powderkeg. The documentary about Mickey [Spillane] was another pet project. Mostly I wanted to get back to Nate Heller, who’d been on hiatus while I did Road to Perdition-related projects. I wanted to complete the Heller series, or have enough entries to be considered complete—specifically, the Kennedy trilogy (Bye Bye, Baby, Target Lancer, Ask Not) seemed a must. The Red Scare Heller—Better Dead—was on the short list of books in the series that really had to be written. I still have a Bobby Kennedy book or two to do with Heller. I’ll be doing the Sam Sheppard case this year. I very much want to keep working as long as I’m physically and mentally able. Not just Heller, though he’s a priority. I like to work and have more stories to tell.
Coming out of heart surgery—having had a stroke on the operating table—I was, after the first few days of just being glad to draw breath, focused on being able to resume work. I had lost the use of my right hand and all of my right side was funky, so walking was an issue. Within two weeks I had enough strength in my right hand to work a computer keyboard—doesn’t take much, truthfully—but I was writing well before I could write my name again. I heard Jerry Seinfeld say he keeps going because he’s like a woodchuck and it’s his job to chuck wood as long as he’s around and able. I agree with that philosophy.
Now I will be picky about what I do. I can’t imagine the circumstances in which I would write another movie novelization or do a TV tie-in novel. But being able to revisit Quarry, and finish Mickey’s Hammer manuscripts, has been a joy. Slowing down will inevitably come, but I’m still keeping my usual pace now. The role my grandson has played is, not surprisingly, to make me glad to be alive and to hope to be around to see him grow up. Sam is a bright, funny little boy of sixteen months. He was a premie, and had a tough go of it—we were fighting for our lives at the same time. I’ve always prized my relationship with my son, Nate, but we make sure now to talk almost every day. I would not have thought to write Road to Perdition before I had a son.
Author photograph © John Deason.