We asked Craig McDonald, author of the Hector Lassiter series and also of two books of interviews with American and European crime novelists, to interview the mysterious Hadley Colt, author of PERMANENT FATAL ERROR. They each have new novels centered by authors and informed by the craft of fiction writing. Hadley and Craig engaged in a conversation about their shared subject matter, as well as the enticements and challenges of writing about writers.
Hadley Colt: Mr. McDonald, your new book is FOREVER’S JUST PRETEND, an early and decidedly sexy chapter in the life of a twenty-something crime writer Hector Lassiter.
Craig McDonald: Ms. Colt—it’s a pleasure talking shop with you by the way—your new novel is PERMANENT FATAL ERROR, a literary thriller about the mystery surrounding “a long-missing, presumed dead cult author.”
HC: Right, but bottom-lining it and pleasing our publicists, you could say we both wrote sexy page-turners about writers in love, couldn’t you?
CM: Love, lust… Some earthy head games, if you’ll forgive the pun. And the solving of mysteries, large and small. Yeah, I think that’s a fair pitch for both our books. PERMANENT FATAL ERROR is actually chalk-full of writers of various stripes, as well as all the dubious industry figures surrounding and leeching off such writers. I’d go so far as to say your novel is a dark and erotic satire on the current state of publishing.
HC: My novel is about a biographer with his own shadowy past who is hired under odd circumstances to prepare an authorized biography of a reclusive author believed to be dead. As the biographer pokes around this dead author’s past, dark clouds gather. A body count mounts. Deals are cut. Careers are made. And, yes, many beds are wrecked.
CM: Ala Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, your legendary “dead” author, Everett Hyde, aggressively worked his recluse act while establishing himself, never allowing publicity photos or detailed biographies… Never giving an interview like this one or even a simple public reading. Everett built up a mystique to establish his so-called publishing platform. I think I admire and envy his career track.
HC: Yes, and adding to the mix is a young, aspiring female fiction writer named Ashley McKnight, as well as a snarky shark of a literary agent and a guy who writes men’s adventure novels between mercenary gigs.
CM: That guy would be your “character” Ace, the so-called “Iron Seal.” Frankly, I think I’ve brushed shoulders with that fella’s real-life counterpart in bars at about half-a-dozen Bouchercons. Even held his leather coat once outside a bar during a dustup in Baltimore. You definitely win the war in terms of populating your book with writers. FOREVER’S JUST PRETEND features a second novelist, Brinke Devlin, who is a more established genre fiction writer and the woman who more or less makes Hector into the man we come to know as the series—and Hector—matures, but that’s it for writers in my book.
Let’s return to this whole Pynchon/Salinger angle for a moment. Your timeline is such that you’re able to have most of Everett Hyde’s published works out in the world prior to the driving need or demand for author web sites, for tweeting, Facebook stalking or engagement of potential readers. All the stuff writers like you and I are expected to engage in and excel at doing. Would Everett Hyde have ever pulled off his mystery act in today’s market?
HC: Candidly, I’m pretty sure he could not. And maybe anticipating your next question, I’d venture Pynchon and Salinger would sink like stones if they tried their same mysterious author acts in our present publishing market. I’m working my own mystery thing presently, of course—Hadley Colt isn’t my real name or my first writing identity, and I’ve played with that promotionally a bit since PERMANENT FATAL ERROR launched. It hasn’t yet in any way proven to be a rocket to stardom. You’re a Hemingway aficionado of sorts, right?
CM: It’s been said.
HC: How would Hemingway have fared in today’s market?
CM: Maybe okay. He was kind of the template for Madonna or Gaga and the like in that he knew how to present a macho, adventuring public image of himself that was quite different from the real Hemingway. That invented Hemingway sold a lot of books but I’ve also ventured the opinion it destroyed the real Hem in the end. That image couldn’t accommodate an older man in failing health who could no longer drink younger men under the table, win the hearts of younger women, or clear bars in Key West brawls. As the image and man grew farther apart, the words trickled to a stall and Hemingway destroyed himself. Having said that, it’s worth noting Hem only sat for one or two meaningful, surviving interviews like this one we’re sharing now. He only gave maybe two public readings I’m aware of.
HC: As a Lassiter fan, I’ve noted the larger arc of Hector’s career—“the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives”—is revealing a kind of evolution or impulse on Hector’s part to shed his public image, which rivals that of Hemingway’s.
CM: The crazy or audacious thing I did was to write the whole Lassiter series—at least all of the books in draft form—before the second was contracted for publication. I didn’t want to be writing annual entries in a series until they planted me under six-feet of sod. I wanted a contained arc in which quality could be sustained—probably less than a dozen books—and in which a larger story could be told. As you’ve seemingly intuited, that story will be the story of Hector Lassiter the writer: the arc of his rise, his sustained and eventually faltering success, and his determination to survive and even escape the dubious legend he’s built for himself as the world and literary culture changes around him.
HC: There’s a bit in TOROS & TORSOS where a woman riffs on a line I’ve seen others cite about Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In your version, it goes something like, “Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be. Hammett wrote the man he feared he was. And you, Hector? You increasingly write about the man you don’t want to be anymore.”
CM: That’s Hector’s larger journey in a nutshell. As some point, Hector even begins to write about himself as a character. And then he takes the next logical, if stunning step beyond that.
HC: Brinke Devlin is also an author. She’s Hector’s love interest introduced in ONE TRUE SENTENCE and she returns in FOREVER’S JUST PRETEND. Mild spoiler here, in the latter, she’s living on a remote island, and many presume she’s dead. She’s beginning to write under another name and… You see where I’m headed?
CM: Again, she’s the great influence on Hector’s development as a man, as an author and as a public figure. Without Brinke, there would be no Hector Lassiter as he comes to be known. Brinke is also one of Hector’s rare contemporaries, romantically. She’s actually a little older than Hector and far wiser, and she steers him around some potential career pitfalls.
It strikes me a similar but gender-inverted dynamic is at work in PERMANENT FATAL ERROR, where your heroine—I for one view your novel as really being Ashley McKnight’s story—is the youngest of your writer characters. I’ll tread lightly here: Along the lines of Brinke, one of your writer characters has also undergone a kind of career reinvention. Like you, and like Brinke, that author character has also flirted with a different writing identity and presents the possibility of a different potential mentor for Ashley as her career launches.
HC: Yes, and that writer resents the new terrain that they have to move in, now. Ashley is also strongly and explicitly cautioned against all the traps you mentioned earlier that can plague authors—all the things you listed like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
CM: I was on a panel a couple of weeks back at a literary conference. It was a decidedly multi-cultural mix. The topic was loyalty and betrayal in the context of writing. I focused on much of that promotional and cyber stuff as a potential betrayal that clearly cuts into writing time and the quality of the words on the page for too many writers. Strikingly, many of the authors from other cultures were aghast this was an issue. But as I threw out certain terms that I feel no writer of conscience should know—“SEO,” “platform,” and “digital footprints”—there were knowing head-nods from American publishing types in the audience. Suffice it to say, it’s a crazy and challenging time to be a fiction writer.
HC: You recently wrote an essay about why you write about a writer.
CM: I did. But Hadley, why do you write about writers?
HC: Partly it was the ambition to cast light on the present writing milieu we’ve talked about. Partly it was something else you wrote about in your essay: I agree with you that writers think and talk differently than other people, and I think non-writers get that. So you can write UP HERE a little more freely and readers will follow you there.
CM: What’s next for Hadley Colt?
HC: Like you, my fellow Betimes author, I’m prepping a short piece for a special Betimes Christmas presentation to come soon. After that, we’ll see. Hadley Colt is, after all, an “enigma wrapped in mystery”. Betimes is publishing your whole Lassiter series in bang-bang-bang fashion. Five are now out—two of them re-issues and three of the novels are entirely new. What’s number six going to be about?
CM: The next one is another new book, which is to say long-ago-written, but never-before-published novel, called THE RUNNING KIND. It’s set in 1950. It’s winter. The Kefauver hearings are dragging mobsters onto television to the horror of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hector falls in love. It’s a road novel. It ends in the Mexican desert. It also sets the stage for a repackaged and rereleased HEAD GAMES, which put me on the map as a published novelist and netted an Edgar nomination.
HC: Mr. McDonald, it’s been a pleasure.
CM: Likewise, Ms. Colt. I’m just sorry so many decades separate our respective characters: I expect some of them would get on quite well. They’d certainly have a lot about which to talk shop.
About the authors:
Hadley Colt is the pseudonym for an internationally acclaimed author. Colt’s previous novels were published in several languages to excellent reviews and high praise from fellow writers who’ve declared the author’s work, “subtle, moving and tragic,” “non conformist,” “bold and extravagant,” “reviving,” “an explosive mix of humor and action” and who has been described as “an erudite with formidable imagination” and a “master of suspense.”
Craig McDonald is an award-winning author and journalist. McDonald’s debut novel was nominated for Edgar, Anthony and Gumshoe awards in the U.S. and the 2011 Sélection du prix polar Saint-Maur en Poche in France. The Lassiter series has been enthusiastically endorsed by a who’s who of crime fiction authors including: Michael Connelly, Laura Lippmann, Daniel Woodrell, James Crumley, James Sallis, Diana Gabaldon and Ken Bruen, among many others.
Craig McDonald’s non-fiction books include Art in the Blood: Crime Novelists Discuss Their Craft and Rogues Males: Conversations & Confrontations about the Writing Life, finalist of the Macavity Award.