Read our exclusive interview with author Max Allan Collins, whose new pulp fiction novel ‘The Consummata’ is set to be released later this month. The book is based on a manuscript by late crime writer Mickey Spillane, and serves as a sequel to the novelist’s book ‘The Delta Factor.’ The follow-up book chronicles how Morgan the Raider sets out to get back the seventy-five thousand dollars a man stole from the struggling Cuban exiles of Miami who rescued him. Collins discusses with us, among other things, how he thought of the details for the remainder of ‘The Consummata,’ and how Spillane influenced his work.
Shockya (SY): This month, your new novel ‘The Consummata,’ which is based on a manuscript by legendary late crime writer Mickey Spillane, is being released. What were your initial thoughts and reactions when he gave you the manuscript before his death and asked you to finish the story?
Max Allan Collins (MAC): There’s been some confusion about those circumstances. ‘The Goliath Bone,’ the final Mike Hammer chronologically, was the book Mickey had been working on at the time of his death – that’s the novel he asked me to complete, if he wasn’t able to. I did so, and Harcourt published it in 2008. But Mickey, during the last week of his life, also instructed his wife Jane to turn all his unpublished material over to me, because (he felt) “Max will know what to do.” That’s an honor I can never top.
‘The Consummata’ is a slightly different case. I used to go down from my Iowa home to visit Mickey in South Carolina, maybe once or twice a year. Sometimes more often when we were collaborating on something, like the Mike Danger comic book or an anthology. Anyway, he had let me read several of the unfinished Mike Hammer novels and also the unfinished sequel to ‘The Delta Factor,’ which was ‘The Consummata.’ In the late 1980s, he handed three manuscripts to me, two Mike Hammers and ‘The Consummata’ – each was about 100 pages long – and said, “Take this home with you. Maybe someday we can do something with these.”
Ironically, not long after that, his home was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo and those three manuscripts might have been lost. The other existing manuscripts came from the one building on Mickey’s property – a small office on stilts! – that miraculously survived that storm.
As for my thoughts about the manuscripts, back in the ‘80s, I frankly didn’t think Mickey would return to them, with or without me. He seldom returned to a set-aside project, because his enthusiasm was always with something new. My instinct was that even then he was depositing them with me to complete for him after his passing.
SY: ‘The Consummata is a sequel to ‘The Delta Factor,’ which introduced the charismatic criminal Morgan the Raider. How has The Delta Factor, and Mickey’s collective writing over the course of his career, influenced your writing?
MAC: I discovered Mickey Spillane when I was 13, shortly after I had inhaled all of Dashiell Hammett’s novels and Raymond Chandler’s as well. I think a major difference between me and a lot of other writers who have followed in those footsteps is that I discovered the great hardboiled writers at a very young age. It wasn’t an aspiring writer discovering this exciting work in graduate school or something, and analyzing them with a literary bent. I was a kid who took Mickey’s novels like vitamins. They were something that became part of me, and the same was true of Hammett, Chandler and James M. Cain. Even Jim Thompson I discovered at around 15. It’s like I mainlined the stuff.
SY: The new book follows Morgan as he sets out to get back the seventy-five thousand dollars a man stole from the struggling Cuban exiles of Miami who rescued him. Did Mickey give you any ideas of where he wanted the story to be headed when he gave you the manuscript, or did you come up with the details on your own?
MAC: Every Spillane manuscript has its delights and its challenges. Understand there are six Hammer substantial manuscripts, and several non-Hammers, notably ‘The Consummata.’ Going through Mickey’s files, I came up with plot and character notes on about half of the Hammers – also, he had told me what endings he planned for several of them. A few are just 100-page manuscripts, like ‘The Consummata,’ simply leave off with nothing to guide me but my history with Mickey’s work and with Mickey as a writer and a man. But that’s plenty. I recently completed the second Mike Hammer novel, ‘Lady, Go Die!,’ begun and set aside in 1945. Within pages I knew where Mick was going, and who the bad guy was, without any doubt…and I also knew that nobody else would.
SY: While writing ‘The Consummata,’ did you feel any pressure to model the story after ‘The Delta Factor?’
MAC: There’s no pressure in any of this other than what naturally comes out of the devotion I have to Mickey and his memory and staying true to them. In other words, I face various challenges – like coming up with a strong, surprising ending, the kind that you don’t see coming but is nonetheless inevitable. I feel no intimidation dealing with this material. Mickey thought I was up to it, and I respect his judgment.
Having ‘The Delta Factor’ to guide me was a pleasure and a gift. It set the tone of the prose…Mickey’s voice varied throughout his career, and it’s for me to nail the way he’s writing in a given period…and the style of the storytelling, the amount of sex, how often there’s an action scene, just the general narrative movement. This story is not similar to ‘The Delta Factor’ in plot, but it’s typical Spillane of the period and the plot is one he set firmly in motion. I have not introduced any new characters that did not appear in Mickey’s material, for example. I follow his lead.
SY: You’re most well-known for writing the graphic novel ‘Road to Perdition; and its two sequels, ‘Road to Purgatory’ and ‘Road to Paradise,’ which all form the basis of the 2002 film of the same name. How did writing those novels differ from working on ‘The Consummata?’
MAC: Actually, the film ‘Road to Perdition’ is based only on my graphic novel. I took advantage of the success of the movie to write those sequels…which I already had in mind doing…and just recently wrote the final entry of the saga, ‘Return to Perdition,’ a graphic novel that DC Vertigo will bring out in November.
I do a lot of collaborative work, and even though Mickey isn’t here, I am collaborating with him. I do not just use his section then pick up where the left off – I expand and shape and revise and extend his material, so that real Spillane prose shows up late in the process. Two-thirds of the book or more go by before you get to the point where I am working solo. That’s why it’s seamless, as some have commented. I treat it as rough draft, which is the process I use when collaborating with wife Barb on the ‘Trash ‘n’ Treasures’ comedy-cozy mystery series (‘Antiques Knock-off’) and with collaborator Matthew Clemmens on various thrillers (‘No One Will Hear You’). Both Barb and Matt provide me with a short rough draft to expand and polish.
The ‘Perdition’ prose novels were not at all collaborative, and the process is straightforward and involves only my own thinking. The graphic novels, however, are collaborative, starting with the great Richard Piers Rayner on Road to Perdition. That was written in chunks, and as soon as I got the first batch of Richard’s artwork back, he began influencing me in how I would write the script. It’s great to be able to write to an artist.
SY: If ‘The Consummata’ is successful upon its release, would you be interested in continuing Morgan’s story in future novels?
MAC: Probably not. There are a number of Spillane fragments – shorter than the substantial manuscripts represented by ‘The Consummata’ and the half dozen Mike Hammers – that might present an opportunity to change a non-series Spillane lead into Morgan or perhaps Tiger Mann. There are numerous Hammer fragments beyond the substantial six, so there would never be a need to create anything out of whole cloth.
SY: You co-founded with Lee Goldberg the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers, which features original tie-in novels, comic books and short stories that are based on existing characters from movies, TV series, books, games and cartoons. Why do you think tie-in novels are so successful?
MAC: Tie-ins are actually hitting a rough patch right now, because they have traditionally been mass-market paperbacks and that segment of the market is in trouble. But tie-ins are successful, when done well (and sometimes even when not done well), because fans of a franchise want more. It’s no surprise that a ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Star Wars’ or ‘CSI’ fan might be interested in novels featuring their favorite characters. Movie novels are a different matter. Before home video, novelizations were the only way to take a movie home with you. Now a good novelization represents either a franchise like a superhero movie, where the fans want whatever they can get, or a serious film that seems like the kind of movie that would and should have been based on a novel. I’ve been lucky to do quite a few of those – ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ ‘American Gangster,’ ‘In the Line of Fire,’ ‘Air Force One.’ I’ve done fun, silly stuff, too, though, like all three ‘Mummy’ movies.
And I feel I did very solid work on the ‘CSI,’ ‘Bones’ and ‘Criminal Minds’ novels – Matt Clemens collaborated on those, doing the forensics research and co-plotting. Those are first-rate crime novels, though not all of my fans bother to read them. Matt and I did the first eight ‘CSI’ novels, and the first two ‘CSI Miami’s,’ and they were the most successful commercially of all of them.
I consider myself a blue-collar writer. Some readers wonder why I would write the ‘G.I. Joe’ movie novelization, and I reply, why do you get up and go to work in the morning? If you’re lucky enough to have a job.
SY: As you mentioned, you have also written tie-in novels for such television series as ‘CSI,’ ‘Bones’ and ‘Dark Angel.’ What was the process like writing these novels, as compared to writing ‘The Consummata?’
MAC: Oddly, there are similarities. When we’re working together, Matt Clemens does a story treatment for me, based on our plotting sessions, that serves as a short rough draft that I base the novel on. Also, I am dealing with characters I did not create. The same is true on the Spillane work. By the way, those ‘Dark Angel’ novels were great fun to do and turned out well. One of the benefits of tie-in work is that you can occasionally step outside of the niche you’ve been relegated to in your real career.
SY: You were a fan of Mickey’s when you were growing up, and befriended him later in life. Did he give you any writing advice, and if so, what was it? Would you pass the same advice to aspiring novelists now?
MAC: Mickey and I did not become friends until after I was published. His mentoring was more business-oriented than slanted toward writing. He dispensed lots of great writing advice over the years, not just to me – funny quips but true, like “Nobody ever read a book to get to the middle,” and “The first page sells this book, the last page sells the next book.” Most of the advice he gave me personally had to do with not letting editors push me around, but I already knew that. He also advised me to take my wallet out of my back pocket when I sat down to write, because it would give me a back ache. Good advice, but trust me – his wallet was fatter.
Mickey gave me a lot of support. In 1982 I wrote an historical thriller about Chicago in the ‘30s called ‘True Detective.’ It broke a lot of rules of the day – it was a private eye novel when the private eye novel was unpopular. It was 150,000 words long when mysteries were usually 50,000 words long. And it was told in the first-person, which you seldom see in a longer novel. One distinguished writing mentor of mine, Donald E. Westlake, advised me to rewrite it in the third-person with the P.I. turned into a cop or reporter, but in general he didn’t like it, certainly not in that form. My New York agent of ten years didn’t want to show it around. But Mickey called me and said, “This is the best book I ever read!”
And that encouragement helped me have the nerve to buck my other mentor’s advice, to fire my agent, and to get a new one, who sold it to the first publishing house he showed it to. ‘True Detective’ won the Best Novel Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 1984. It launched a long-running, acclaimed series that continues on to this day – the 13th Heller, ‘Bye Bye, Baby’ (about the death of Marilyn Monroe) was published last month. And AmazonEncore has just brought all of the Hellers back out in trade paperback, with Brilliance doing audios. Last week, ‘True Detective’ – the book I was advised to essentially scrap back in ’82 – was #1 on the Kindle bestseller list. Right now it’s still in the Top 25.
Which brings me to another piece of Mickey advice: “Never listen to the critics. They get their books free – pay attention to the people who pay for them.”
Written by: Karen Benardello