Author Max Allan Collins may best be known for writing Road to Perdition, which was turned into a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks. A prolific writer in every sense of the word, Collins has recently been undertaking a massive project: expanding and finishing the lost works of author Mickey Spillane. Random House Books, via their label Hard Case Crime, have released a steady stream of Max Allan Collins books including Two For the Money, The First Quarry, The Last Quarry, Quarry’s Ex, and now, his collaboration with Spillane, The Consummata, a direct sequel to Spillane’s famous The Delta Factor.
In an unprecedented move, Spillane willed his unfinished works to Collins with the hope he would one day be able to finish them. After finishing Dead Street in 2007, Collins began work on the unfinished Mike Hammer series, coming out with The Goliath Bone in 2008, The Big Bang in 2010, and Kiss Her Goodbye earlier this year. Now, on Tuesday, Hard Case Crime releases the latest in the collaboration between Spillane and Collins, The Consummata starring Morgan the Raider.
Max was kind enough to take some time out of his day to talk a little about his experiences finishing the works of one of his literary heroes, writing for Hollywood, writing for a living, and of course, The Consummata.
The Daily Rotation: As far as I understand it, from the stuff I’ve gotten from the press materials, this is the first release of The Consummata anywhere, and it looks like about the 5th book of Mickey Spillane‘s that you’ve finished. What is it like, finishing the works of one of your biggest influences?
Max Allan Collins: It’s really been a lot of things. It’s been a pleasure, sometimes it’s been a challenge, and an honor. I know people often wonder if I’m intimidated by it, but I’m not really, because I was reading Mickey Spillane when I was 13, and he has remained my favorite author since I was 13, I’ve read his books many many times, then I had the privilege of getting to know him in the early 80’s, and we were good friends, and the fact that he, in the last weeks of his life, asked me to do this, singled me out as the person he wanted to deal with unpublished, unfinished material, I feel like if he had that confidence in me, I have that confidence in me. I would almost have to say — and I hate to admit this — but, the word that comes to my mind immediately is — fun.
TDR: Yeah, and like you said, obviously he made these plans for you, but did you guys ever really discuss the projects in particular — plots, or anything like that? Or was it just kind of — once he made the decision, he just let you run with them?
MAC: It’s a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. The first time this came up was in the early 1980’s, when I was down there — I live in Iowa, a little town in Iowa — and I would go visit him from time to time in South Carolina. I went down there with a fellow named Jim Traylor, who collaborated with me on a book about Mickey some years ago, and we went down to interview him and talk to him, and during the of the weekend we spent with Mickey — and at that time, there had not been a Spillane book out for probably a dozen years, there hadn’t been a Mike Hammer for a long, long time. He mentioned that he had several in progress. So he gave me the manuscripts of two Mike Hammer books, and he showed me The Consummata, which was a similar length. All of these were around 100 pages, I would say. About 20,000 words, 20-25,000 words. Sometimes as many as 30,000. Nothing over about 30,000 words. He actually — a few years later — I read them down there, and we talked about them then, and he — at that time he indicated that he’d get back to finishing these one day. Then I went down there in the later 80’s, and he — before I left to go home — he handed me the manuscripts and said “Take these home with you and maybe we’ll do something with these one day.” That’s all he said. Ironically, just within a year of my visit, Hurricane Hugo hit and decimated his house.
TDR: That’s when he was on the news.
MAC: I always wondered if we saved those books that way. He had an office that was not touched by Hurricane Hugo, it was actually funny because he had this home that was extremely sturdy that got blown apart, and he had a little shack basically, on stilts, that was his little office and that survived the hurricane. Always in storms like that there are just these anomalies, these weird things. And it survived, a bunch of his manuscripts were in there. Then, over the years when I would visit him — we always had a kind of — I wouldn’t call it a ritual, but something that always happened was we’d stay up kind of late, and we’d go up to — he had an office on the third floor of his rebuilt home, very sturdy, I don’t think a hurricane exists that could knock that house down, and we would go up to his office and kind of talk shop, and then he knew what a big Mike Hammer fan I was, of course. So he would just start — I’d just sit on the couch and he’d just sort of stand there and pace back and forth and tell me the endings of these Mike Hammer stories he was telling me.
I was just a total kid in a candy shop. I couldn’t believe it, it was like sitting around a camp fire and having the world’s greatest storyteller tell you a ghost story. And here I am sitting here, hearing the ending to all these Mike Hammer stories. Some of these novels, I know the endings because he told me. But he didn’t tell me in a collaborative way, he was just telling me as this friend who loved Mike Hammer, and was a writer. I was the only writer friend of his, really, at that point in his life. Earlier in his life, he had actually hung out with a lot of people particularly in the comic book field, when he lived on the east coast. But living down in South Carolina, on a day to day basis, he didn’t have any writer friends. So when I would show up, he would just relish being able to talk about writing. So he shared a lot of this stuff with me. Now, I have to say also, all these manuscripts were in different kinds of shape, and sometimes they had notes about plot and character.
A few times, he even had the endings written, Mickey always said he wrote the endings first, and there were a couple where he had written — at least roughed out — what the ending was. Now, The Consummata was, in some ways, the trickiest because he had 100 pages, 100-110 pages, but there was no plot information, no character information. I had to just extrapolate it, and he had already written — of course I used The Delta Factor, which this was a direct sequel to, as a big guide of what he was up to. One of the rules I have when I do this, because these manuscripts are substantial enough that he’s got — by the time they conclude — he’s pretty much put all the plot threads in motion, and he’s got everyone on stage. So I never invent characters. I use the characters that he has invented, or at least indicated. It may be a gangster who hasn’t appeared on stage yet, but he’s mentioned him. So everything flows from what Mickey assembled. So that’s sort of how the process works, in terms of knowing where I’m going, so it’s a little bit different on each one. I would say the most challenging thing about The Consummata was figuring out what The Consummata was. Because that was the title, it was a title he really loved, he had actually announced it a couple of times, but in the 100 pages, The Consummata was not mentioned.
So I had to figure out what it was, what it might be. My wife — my wife’s a writer, Barbara Collins — we spent hours just talking about it. We thought “Well, maybe it’s a piece of music that has a spy code somehow woven into it, or maybe it simply refers to the consummation of the marriage of Morgan the Raider and his wife, because they had not consummated their marriage at the end of the first book. So we kicked a lot of things around, but what I decided to do was run with the notion of — Mickey had introduced this S&M theme with the bad guy, the bad guy was into S&M — so I used that as the springboard for saying there was this sort of legendary dominatrix that had come into Miami, and that she is sort of the lure to bring this guy out of hiding. And that’s what I mean about — if I don’t know where he was going, using what he put on the table — I play with his toys, let’s put it that way.
TDR: And I thought it went seamlessly from where The Delta Factor left off, it was a completely Morgan the Raider world. As I understand it, he originally abandoned the project due to the negative experience he had making The Delta Factor movie, correct?
MAC: Yes, that was, I believe, the case. He really thought that Morgan was going to be his next big character. When he came back in the early 60’s, having sort of taken 10 years off at his peak. While he was gone, Ian Fleming kind of moved into his position. So Mickey was looking for something that was more — where he could do what he did, but do it in more of an espionage fashion. And he did four books about this character Tiger Mann, which were popular, but did not take off in a way that really competed with James Bond in any significant sense. So, he always was interested in pirates and the sea, and he was a sailor himself, he had a boat, he had a little — I wouldn’t call it a yacht — but he had a nice sized fishing boat that he went out in. I think he got fascinated with “Well, let’s do a modern day pirate and kind of involve him in the world of espionage”, and it was launched with a lot of fanfare. Pendant Books launched it, and Dutton and Signet Books, who were his publishers, hardcover/paperback, launched it with a lot of advertising, a lot of fanfare, and I think when this movie was in the works, that was going to be the thing that would really launch the character. Then, when the movie was kind of a misbegotten misfire, I think Mickey just set the manuscript aside.
TDR: It’s unfortunate that it seems to happen all too often, when it doesn’t go correctly, people get disappointed. Touching on that a little bit, these are a lot of the concepts and themes of this book, the consummation of the marriage, it’s set in the 60’s, and it’s very specific to that period, but it’s still very hard boiled, has violence, which today is used by the biggest authors — John Connelly, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane — they all have this — these things that used to make Spillane risque, is that hard to find that time period and find that style as you’re progressing from what he’s already put down?
MAC: It’s very interesting that — and a couple things come to mind when you open that particular door. The sexual content, well, it’s still titillating, and fun, today, I think it’s overstating it to say it’s mild, but certainly it’s not as shocking as it once was. But if he put it in the context of he starting doing this kind of sex scene in 1947, right after the war, he was the guy that really opened the door entirely for that level of sexuality. Similarly, no one had ever written scenes of violence with the kind of intensity — and frankly — gore, that he did. A kind of heightened realism that he brought to it that nobody had done. What’s interesting to me about that is that even with everything that we’ve had in the culture since 1947, from Sam Peckinpah to you name the author or the film that has just taken the violence over the top — Mickey Spillane‘s scenes of violence are still shocking. They’re still — unlike the sex scenes, they haven’t lost their punch. There are scenes in Mike Hammer that still are just beyond the pale, and I love that. I love how that level of violence — and I think that one of the things that’s appealing in the retro nature of this, the Hard Case Crime nature of this, because I do think people like to see the sort of man/woman relationship portrayed in an old fashioned way, but not in a way that is actually sexist. What a lot of people don’t understand about Mickey — and most people who criticize Mickey have read little or nothing of his work — the women in his books are extremely strong. If you look at The Consummata, there are just some amazing women in that book in terms of just the strength of their character.
TDR: They kind of rule Morgan, they’re almost what propels him through the story, all these women around him.
MAC: No question. So these women — and Zelda, with Mike Hammer, is the epitome of this — these are women that stand toe to toe with him. And that’s why, when he’s accused of being misogynist, when the bad guy — sometimes in these books — turns out to be a bad girl. And they say “Well, he’s a misogynist, because Mike Hammer or one of Mickey’s other heroes will sometimes just kill these women — he’s actually anything but misogynist. He’s certainly not sexist. He’s accepting them as equals.
TDR: Long before anyone did.
MAC: Somebody once said to him “Why are so many of the bad guys in the books women?” and he said “I think maybe about half the time that’s true”. And then they said, “Half of the time it’s true, why so many women?” and he said “Well, you’ve only got two choices.” [LAUGHTER]
TDR: This book was began in the 60’s, and it has that very specific 60’s setting of — that was a critical time in Miami’s lifeline, especially in Little Havana, and Morgan is an outsider, he has his resources, but he’s up against Castro’s Cuba — how much did you really have to research that time and place, or how much came directly from what Mickey had written?
MAC: There’s a good deal of it that was in Mickey. I did have to do some research. I’ve been writing a lot about that era in my Nathan Heller series, I just did a book called Bye Bye, Baby, which is the new Nathan Heller book that’s been out since August, and I just finished the next Nate Heller book which deals with the Kennedy assassination, so I’ve been pretty much up to my navel in Castro Cuba in doing these books. It tied right in. The interesting thing, though, some of the people — Mickey and I did not share — this is something not everyone knows, but Mickey and I did not share the same politics. He’s obviously right of center and I’m left of center. So some people question — “Well, that’s unusual, why would Mike Hammer — he’s a right wing character! Morgan is a right wing character!” I actually don’t see them as right wing characters, I just see them — if they’re right wing, they’re right wing in the way John Wayne was right wing. I just stay in character, that’s who the character is, and that’s what I follow. And I do think that the whole Castro’s Cuba — both sides of that, the exiles and the — there’s some wild stuff that went on, on both sides of that equation. You see some, I think, even in The Consummata of the CIA manipulating these people, sort of hangng them out to dry. That’s certainly the case in history.
TDR: Definitely, and it’s something that’s not as popular as a history subject. You talked a little bit about getting inside the character of Morgan. I found that in a lot of ways, he’s similar to the character of Nolan that you’ve written a series about, but in a lot of ways he’s different. They each have their —
MAC: That’s fair. That’s a fair comment.
TDR: So how do you keep those separated in your mind when you’re writing, obviously a lot of other characters and situations from your past and your past writing probably bubbles up at some point — how do you keep those separate? Morgan still is very much his own character, very much the character he was in The Delta Factor, or are there some overlaps that you find while writing?
MAC: Morgan probably influenced Nolan to some degree. Richard Stark‘s character Parker was the obvious source for that, but I think one of the ways I deal with it is I never work on more than one novel at a time. Generally speaking, I’m on one project, so I’m immersed in it, and I’m immersed in the character. The only exception to that is sometimes I have — because I like comics, I don’t write them as much as I used to — but sometimes I will have an ongoing — for example, when I was doing the Dick Tracy comic strip, I did that for 15 years, and I obviously did a lot of other things during that period. And I wrote the Batman comic book for a year, and I obviously did other stuff during that period, but with the exception of ongoing projects, where I may set a day or two aside each week to deal with, I’m very focused on the novel at hand. That doesn’t really cause me problems. I would say with writing Mickey, the biggest problem I have, the thing I have to really watch is he and I do not have the same sense of humor. There’s a lot — if you’ve read my books, you know there’s a lot of humor in my books, and my humor is sarcastic and sort of cynical. Really, Mickey is — dark as those books are, he’s not really a cynic. He’s the epitome of this sort of tattered urban knight. And the humor in a Mickey Spillane novel is what I would call more the Howard Hawkes kind of male bonding humor. Men who are men, and a certain amount of teasing. Mickey himself was a kind of tease of a guy, he’d kid you.
So there’s kidding humor, and sometimes I will cut lines just because I say “No, that line is right for Nate Heller, but it’s not right for Mike Hammer, or it’s not right for Morgan the Raider. That’s the biggest thing. Other than that, I really don’t have any trouble because I stay very focused on the job at hand. For example, with Spillane, when I am doing one of these books — and these books that Mickey left, one of them dates to 1945 — and there’s one he was writing at the time of his death. There are some from the 60’s, there’s some from the 70’s, there’s one from the 90’s, so they’re all over the map in terms of when he wrote them. And I don’t just sit down and start doing generic Mickey Spillane, I study the books that are adjacent to the time he wrote the incomplete manuscript that I’m expanding. Obviously, I spent a lot of time with The Delta Factor. And I looked at other books from the mid-60’s that he was doing, so I could get the tone, and the approach of that period.
So I’m not just doing Mickey Spillane, I’m doing Mickey Spillane in the context of when he wrote the book. And that I think is something that I think a lot of people wouldn’t think to do. That’s one of the reasons why I think these books have been called seamless, the other reason — and I think there’s probably some purists who would not approve of this. But I did not take Mickey’s work, plop it down and then pick it up where he left off. I take his work and I revise, expand it, extend it, look for where I think a scene is missing, look for something that he refers to that happened off stage, put it on stage. By the time I’ve finished doing that, I’m usually 2/3 of the way into the book. Not 1/3. He writes 1/3. And then I expand adding 2/3 of the book, so I’m weaving my own take on the material, my own Spillane influenced take, so that by the time all the Spillane material is sort of out of the book, and I’m working by myself, the reader is used to the voice, and so am I, I just continue writing in that voice. But it’s not just Mickey’s voice, it’s — these are collaborations. And I’m sure that would be the way that Mickey would want it. He pretty much gave me carte blanche.
TDR: If he left them, you know, he wouldn’t just leave them to anyone, especially the guy he was.
MAC: It’s probably the biggest honor I’ve ever been paid. You mention about the pressure, and how I feel when I’m writing it, and I said “No, I have confidence and I channel this so it doesn’t really bother me”, but what happens sometimes is it — not when I’m writing it, but maybe when I’m finished writing something, or finish a chapter, I go downstairs and I say to my wife “I’m working on the sequel to I, The Jury right now. I’m finishing a book in 2011 that Mickey Spillane started in 1945, how weird can my life be? Is this really happening?” The weirdness of it, there are some really weird things about my life and career. I had two obsessions as a kid: One, when I was a little kid, was Dick Tracey. And when I got into junior high, it was Mickey Spillane. And I started my career taking over for Chester Goldman on Dick Tracey, and I’m going into what is likely the last act of my career, taking over for Mickey Spillane. It’s bizarre. It goes beyond dream come true into just like “What the hell?”
TDR: You mentioned that he had left a few projects that you’re still doing, I know there have been a few Mike Hammer ones, are there any — did he have any particular plans to keep going with Morgan, I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone that hasn’t read the book, but —
MAC: No, I don’t think there will be another Morgan. Where we are with Hammer is I just did in fact complete the fourth of the Mike Hammer’s, which is the sequel to I, The Jury, it’s the second Mike Hammer book that he started and put aside, and there are two more that I’ll be doing for Titan Books. But there’s a lot of other materials here, there are shorter Mike Hammer segments, where instead of a third of a book, there’s maybe a couple of chapters, so if people are still interested, there is still more Spillane material to build off of here. There are three screenplays, none of them Mike Hammer, but there are three screenplays that could be turned into novels. There are a lot of fragments about non-Mike Hammer characters, but who are in the same vain. It’s possible that some of these could be converted into either Morgan or Tiger Mann. Actually, there’s some Hollywood interest in Tiger Mann, and I think if that happens, I may take one of these Spillane fragments and convert it into a Tiger Mann story, so there’s a lot to do here. I have an entire file cabinet drawer of unpublished Spillane material. It’s pretty amazing.
TDR: That is amazing. Touching on that, you’ve dabbled in a million things: comics, movie novelizations, TV novelizations, multiple series’ of your own original stuff, historical murder mysteries, independent films, documentaries, had your work adapted by major studios, you’re doing all this Spillane stuff, can you speak a little bit for our readers on how you navigate so many fields successfully, and how you’ve done most of it from your hometown in Iowa?
MAC: I mean, there’s probably no question that if I had moved to Hollywood I would have done a lot more movie work, and I love movies, and I still hope to do more screenwriting, I still hope to do more independent film. We’re working all the time to try to get film projects going. Anybody involved with films, from the highest level to the lowest level, know it’s tough. Everyone is tough to get launched, and I’ve had a lot of interest from the film side. I think the novelizations and the TV work that I’ve done — that I did for 5 or 6 years I did all the licensing work for CSI — without ever having set foot on set. Ten novels, four or five graphic novels, 4 or 5 video games, jigsaw puzzles, all this stuff — I do think that the movie stuff that I’ve done, the novels and TV tie-ins, some of how I got the opportunity to do that is because I am a filmmaker, in a modest way at least, so I know how to read a movie script and understand it and I know how to turn it into a novel. A lot of novelists don’t understand how film works, a lot of screenwriters couldn’t write a novel to save their life.
I’ve always kind of viewed myself as a storyteller, and on the one hand, that allows me to sometimes say “Which medium is correct for this idea?” In other times, it allows me to have the freedom to try to do an idea in a couple of different fields, so if I can’t sell it — for example, I have a book coming out, a graphic novel coming out called Return to Perdition, which is the last chronological segment in the Perdition saga. I had before done two prose sequels, two novels. Well, the publishing company that I did the prose novels for didn’t want another book. So I went back to DC Comics and said “I would like to do another Perdition graphic novel”. I mean, this is the same story I would have done in the novel. But because the publisher wasn’t interested, and because I have some skills developed in different kinds of — ways, of telling the story, I would be able to go over here and say “I would like to do this as a graphic novel until the book exists”. So that’s part of why I do it, how I do it probably comes out of the fact that I am a full time working writer.
A lot of writers, if you really scratch the surface, particulalry when you get below the people that are superstars, and I’m certainly not one of them, but people like — you mentioned some of them, Lehane, Connelly, like that, Harlan Coben, and some of these kind of folks, they’re full time writers. You get down below that level, most people are teaching school, or they’re lawyers, or they’re doctors, or they have some kind of day job. This is my day job. I’ve gotten some criticism for doing the novelizations, the TV tie-ins and so on. Well, this is what I do for a living. I don’t give them a hard time for going to the office, I don’t know why they give me a hard time for going to my office and putting bread on my table and keeping lights on in the joint. That’s how I view myself, I’m a writer. I prefer to do my own material, but sometimes, a publisher may want only one book a year. I may have a perfectly fine arrangement with them to do work, but if they only want one book a year, and they don’t give me enough money to live on it for a year, I’ve got to go out and write something else. I mean, it’s just that simple. I don’t know why that’s such a hard concept for so many people. I mean, I really take a lot of pride and satisfaction in being a full time, freelance working writer.
TDR: And like you said, so many people just don’t understand the concept of it being a job, it’s something you just have to sit and do. The Consummata comes out on Tuesday October 4th, 2011 everywhere from Hard Case Crime, which you’ve done a bunch of books for, anything else you’re working on, on that end of things?
MAC: There’s actually another book coming out October 4th, 2011, not from Hard Case, Amazon Encore, which is a publishing house within the Amazon empire, they’ve brought out all of my Nathan Heller novels in a trade paperback, and of course e-book. Twelve of them, the first twelve. But they’re also publishing the new Nathan Heller short story collection, and that book is called Chicago Lightning, and it also comes out Tuesday the 4th of October. It’s all of the Nathan Heller short stories to date, under one cover. Chicago Lightning, by the way, is prohibition era slang for gunfire.
MAC: [LAUGHTER] It’s easy to grab all the Nathan Heller novels now, they’re beautiful editions and they’re very reasonably priced. And the Kindle — last week they released True Detective, that’s the first Nathan Heller book and for one day they put it at 99 cents, and it sold — it went to number 1 on the Kindle e-books and sold like 13,000 copies. And it’s still doing quite well on the Kindle Best Sellers list, it’s still in the top records. Pretty high on t he mystery list, so Nathan Heller seems to be making something of a comeback, I had not written him for about 10 years, so I was very excited about doing that, and I love working for Hard Case Crime, I love that — you should probably know also, they recently put out my book Quarry’s Ex, and that they would actually put two books out, by me, back to back, it’s very gratifying.
TDR: Well, I’ve never picked up a Hard Case Crime book that I didn’t like.
MAC: Charles Ardai is kind of a genius, but I don’t know if you should tell him I said that.
TDR: Last question, my question, ever since I read The Last Quarry first, oddly enough, then went back and re-read them, has there been interest in doing Quarry movies? I think everyone would love to see them.
MAC: Well, there is a Quarry movie, a movie called The Last Lullaby that is out right now, it came out last week on DVD, starring Tom Seizmore.
TDR: I had heard about it, but I haven’t heard any movement on it.
MAC: It did extremely well on the festival circuit, won a bunch of awards, I’m the co-screenwriter, it’s basically based on The Last Quarry. Seizmore did a great, great job. The character is actually not called Quarry directly in the movie, he’s called Price, but that was because I didn’t want to sell all the rights. So I gave them the rights to do a one-off.
TDR: Awesome, I had heard about it, I just haven’t followed up I guess.
MAC: It’s a great movie, it has Sasha Alexander, who is in the TV show Rizzoli and Isles, she’s great, she’s excellent, a lot of good actors, and the director is a guy named Jeffrey Goodman, he did an excellent job. So if you like film noir, you like Quarry, you gotta check that out.
TDR: And you said that’s out on DVD now?
MAC: Yeah, you can get that right now. It came out about a week ago.
You can pick up The Last Lullaby, right here.
You can also pick up Chicago Lightning right here.
Check out the first Nathan Heller True Detective e-book right here. Right now only $1.99!
More e-books from Max right here
For more information on Max and his fiction, check out his website.