I always liked the aspect in The Big Lebowski that the story of the Dude was a modern legend, that it somehow came upon a mysterious stranger to tell us the story. Myth is important, it keeps things interesting, and that’s why so many legends endure the ages.
Craig McDonald understands this, that character should always come first, but not at the expense of the story. His debut Head Games is wonderfully character-driven, but at the backdrop of a great story, built on both real history and lies. I got in touch with McDonald and he answered my questions about how research can be used to make great fiction, and he clued me in where certain elements come from, what’s next for the legend of Hector Lassiter, and what myth means to him.
As a journalist, you must have a certain enjoyment in research, so is that why you mined America’s history in Head Games?
I was never much of a math or science student…it was always stuff with language and history that engaged me. I’d introduced the Lassiter character in a short story that drew a fair amount of praise and I wanted to use the character again. I was casting around for something to tie him to. The short story set up the broad outlines of Lassiter’s life—that he was a World War I vet and so forth. So I decided to take him back to the Pershing Expedition and exploit a lot of my college-era reading I’d done on Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution.
I also actually spent a couple of hours talking with a Pershing Expedition member from my hometown back in the mid-80s…the guy was ancient, but he had great stories, and some terrific pictures taken along the trail in the chase after Villa.
Most profoundly, I was struck by the strange parallels between Villa’s attack on America—a country that almost allied with him—and the desert hunt for Villa and the ways in which Sept. 11 and the ensuing hunt for Bin Laden compare/contrast with the Villa affair. And there was the Bush family’s ties to both those dark pieces of history…something explored most intensely in the third section of the novel.
Do you imagine Hector was a good writer? The characters say he is, but they’re un-reliable.
Hector tends to disparage his own writing skill the way many hardboiled writers of his generation did. There was a lot of swagger in those guys and they tended to feel a bit uncomfortable making their living with words and being regarded as intellectuals. Hemingway probably most acutely manifested that trait—trying much too hard to cast himself as something other than the myopic, bookish intellectual that, deep down, he was.
Two Lassiter sequels are ready to go…they go much deeper into Hector’s writing and even give some samples of his prose. The third novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, is Hector’s writing apprenticeship, moving among people like Stein and Ford and Pound. So he’s no hack. In my mind, Hector’s style was in the vicinity of Hemingway and Hammett, but without Hemingway’s sometimes regrettable lurches into sentimentality. I think Hector was a “naked-lunch-at-the-end-of-the-fork” kind of writer.
Who is Hector based on?
Hector is a composite of various crime writers, but leaning hardest on Jonathan Latimer who is criminally neglected and whose works include one called, appropriately enough, "The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head."
And Bud Fiske?
Bud Fiske actually came out of a kind of novella in the form of a mock memoir I wrote just for myself to blow off steam while working on a much darker novel a few years ago. Hector needed a sidekick, so I picked up Bud, this character I knew well and had constructed this crazy, big backstory for. I figure when Bud grew up, he ended up being a little like William Burroughs.
You have a graphic novel of Head Games coming out. How’d that come about?
My agent made it her mission to sell Head Games as a graphic novel and relatively quickly landed a deal with First Second, an Eisner Award-winning imprint that has released some remarkable works in the past couple of years including some really sublime pieces from Eddie Campbell. I thought we’d sell the rights and that would be that as far as my participation. As circumstances unfolded, I’ve ended up writing the script. The first draft was just turned over to First Second and we’re waiting to see about an artist.
Have you considered actually writing one of Hector’s novels mentioned in Head Games? I could easily see one as a Hard Case Crime novel, one of their lost gems that they often put out.
I’d really love to do it if someone expressed an interest in such a book. In a sense, Head Games is one of Hector’s novels, but I could have some fun writing an old-school, 1930s-era pulp novel and slapping Hector’s byline on it. Head Games and the sequels are littered with titles of Hector’s novels…I’d probably set it in pre-Hemingway Key West…maybe the oft-mentioned Hector novels The Last Key or Wandering Eye.
In your next collection of interviews, Rogue Males, did it change things now that you approached your interview subjects as a published writer yourself?
Some of the interviews in Rogue Males are now five or more years old, so my short story/novel/interviewing/reviewing roles were all going along fairly concurrently. Head Games was completed more than three years ago. The only interviews I’ve conducted since Head Games sold to Bleak House are third, brief interviews with James Ellroy and Lee Child, one with Laura Lippman, and a very recent interview with Elmore Leonard that closes out my interviewing career and just made the book.
Where did the idea for Head Games come from?
I got hooked on the Mexican Revolution as a college freshman and just read every fiction and nonfiction item on Villa I could get my hands on. I always had a notion to write some piece of fiction tied to Villa, but I didn’t really want to write something tied directly to his Revolutionary days. I knew the story of his missing head, and one of the first things I remember liking in grade school is the rather macabre Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” about a guy trying to fulfill a debt to a dead buddy out there on the tundra. All of that really fed the basic plot moves of the novel.
Have you gotten any trouble from Yale or Skull and Bones members or anyone associated with people mentioned in the book since its publication?
Nada. They’re all dead public figures and have had much harsher things written about them or attributed to them in various nonfiction books. Hell, Orson Welles has even been accused of perhaps killing Elizabeth Short. Emil Holmdahl really was arrested for stealing Villa’s skull and is the subject of a biography that details or insinuates some stuff more nefarious even than that escapade. And the Bush family? Prescott, George W’s grandfather, and his ties to Geronimo’s allegedly stolen head recently made news again and there’s been talk of a march on Washington to demand the return of the head. As to Skull and Bones, they were recently the subject of a pretty tough nonfiction book that included some revelations from members…compared to stuff in that book, Head Games depicts them in a relatively positive light.
Who are you reading these days? Who do you think will be big in the coming years?
I’ve been drifting away from crime fiction in recent months, finding it harder and harder to find stuff to love or be surprised by. The writers I go out of my way to read in genre are James Sallis, Daniel Woodrell and Ken Bruen’s Taylor novels. Outside genre, Dexter…Craig Holden and Cormac McCarthy. For short fiction, it’s hard to beat Alistair MacLeod. In terms of newer crime writers, Megan Abbott really impresses me. Allan Guthrie has an impressive arc going.
What writer would you love to interview that you can’t?
Hemingway…really, he’d be the one. In terms of crime fiction, I’ve gotten to speak to just about every one I’d really want to put questions to.
What is next for you?
Rogue Males should come out before summer of next year. The graphic novel doesn’t have a release date, but it shouldn’t be terribly far off. And there are other Lassiters in the can. The next one opens in Key West, in 1935, and picks up another series of recently alleged crimes involving a circle of surrealist artists. It’s a different ride than Head Games…told in third-person and Hector is in his prime…not the reeling, grieving widower we saw in the first novel.
I noticed that Head Games has the feel of a western. Was that intended?
Yeah, a fair bit. Hector grew up in the American southwest…born in 1900…he was mounted cavalry… He still carries his old Colt Peacemaker and stores his manuscripts in one of his retro-fitted saddlebags. The dynamic between Hector and Bud — the mentor/father figure/buddy thing is playing off those old archetypes and with those New Mexico/Juarez/Tijuana settings, it’s hard not to put across that vibe.
What is the importance of legend and myth to you?
Story is so vital and so undervalued in most contemporary fiction. Certainly that’s the case in “literary fiction,” but to growing extents, also in some sectors of crime fiction. You can only ring so many variations on the heist novel, the private eye thing, or the police procedural and most of the best books in those sectors were written years ago. I tried in Head Games to go a bit deeper and risk going way over the top and write the book I wanted to read with a kind of mythic span. Novels should be character-driven, but at base, you’ve got to give the reader a story to bite into, too.