An Interview with Max Allan Collins

Back in issue 21 of Crimespree we talked to Max Allan Collins about a project he was undertaking. The project was taking the books that Mickey Spillane had started but not finished and get them into print. Some were more done than others but Al has been working away at it along with writing his own books. We thought we’d check I with Mr. Collins to see how the work is going.

Jon: We talked about this project at Love Is Murder back in 2007. So now about 7 years later, how far along are you into getting the books finished and to publishers?

Max: I would say I’ve completed the first, most important phase, which was to complete the manuscripts that are in what I call “substantial” form. In other words, novels that Mickey had written around 100 pages or more of, often with notes on plot and character and sometimes rough drafts of endings. These include the non-Hammer novels DEAD STREET, which I edited and lightly revised, doing the final several chapters, and THE CONSUMMATA, the long-awaited sequel to THE DELTA FACTOR. These were both done for Hard Case Crime.

The really key manuscripts, however, were the six in-progress Mike Hammer novels, written all around Mickey’s career, from as early as 1947 to the weeks prior to his passing. Since there were only thirteen Hammer novels published during Mickey’s lifetime, and of course Hammer is a major character in the genre, completing these other six was crucial. That was my minimum goal – to get those half dozen Hammer novels out there.

That phase is finished – KING OF THE WEEDS is the final of those six Hammers.

Now I am embarking on finishing three less substantial but still significant Hammer manuscripts that range in the 30 to 49 page range. One has quite a few plot notes and a roughed-out ending. Another is a false start on THE GIRL HUNTERS in which Velda goes to Florida, not Russia. The opening pages are identical to THE GIRL HUNTERS, so I’m substituting another opening Mickey wrote but never used. There’s a certain amount of mix and match in this process.

There’s the possibility of another three beyond that. There’s a non-Hammer manuscript from the ‘50s of about 40 pages that’s just dynamite that can be converted, for example.

A secondary project is completing the shorter Hammer fragments by writing short stories, with an eventual collection in mind. One of these, “So Long, Chief,” was recently Edgar-nominated.

Jon: Being a fan and friend of Mickey is it kind of hard going through his papers?

 

Max: Not at all. He’s very much alive in those papers, which is how I like him.

Also, it’s a voyage of discovery. There was and is so much material that I couldn’t read everything in detail, so initially some things got set aside because I’d misidentified them. THE GIRL HUNTERS false start, for example – I set that aside at first because I thought it was indeed that novel. LADY, GO DIE!, the 1947 manuscript, appeared to be an early draft of THE TWISTED THING, because of some common character names and the setting, but an eventual closer look revealed an entirely different story. KISS HER GOODBYE was an earlier take on BLACK ALLEY, and again the use of the same names as that novel made me think it would be unusable. But reading it in depth revealed a completely different story, other than the concept of Hammer returning to New York from Florida after recuperating from bullet wounds. I did have to change the mob family’s name, because that name was common to both books.

Sometimes Mickey would write several versions of first chapters, with no indication of his preference. The rather wonderful first chapter of THE GOLIATH BONE is my melding of three such openings into one.

I refuse to be intimidated by working with Mickey’s material. It’s unpublished. It was set aside. He told his wife Jane, “Max will know what to do with this stuff.” That gives me his blessing to make the books what they need to be. The nice comments from reviewers that they can’t tell where Mickey leaves off and I begin is for a simple reason: I treat his material as rough draft, and revise and expand. The style ultimately is not mine and not his, but ours…as in any good collaboration.

I do go to considerable lengths to hit the tone of the period the books were started in. I read the novels Mickey wrote just before and after the unfinished one, to get in the right groove. For LADY, GO DIE!, I read I, THE JURY, MY GUN IS QUICK and THE TWISTED THING. I go through marking up passages with highlighter, like a college student cramming for an exam.

KING OF THE WEEDS is a direct sequel to BLACK ALLEY, and is the most direct sequel Mickey ever did. So I read BLACK ALLEY over and over, listened to the audio in the car, marked it up like crazy.

 

Jon: Do you have any of the books that have been extra fun for you to work on?

Max: LADY, GO DIE! was perhaps my favorite, because it’s the only one of the substantial unfinished manuscripts that dealt with the young, wild Hammer – it’s a 1947 manuscript. So it’s the Hammer of I, THE JURY. KISS HER GOODBYE was rewarding because it was written in a period where Spillane wasn’t publishing Hammer, and gives a singular look at the character as he approaches middle age. But KING OF THE WEEDS was probably the most fun, because it’s a book that Mickey was writing during our friendship – a book he discussed with me many times. He hadn’t written the ending down, but he told it to me, memorably, late one night in one of his offices in his Murrell’s Inlet home. In fact, he described it to me several times, over the years, but that one time was like hearing him tell a story around a campfire.

 

Jon: In addition to the Spillane/Collins books you are still doing an awful lot of writing on your own and with Barbara and Mathew Clemmons as well. How do you balance all of this work?

 

Max: I work steadily, six days a week. Between books, Barb and I take a brief getaway to St. Louis, to see our son Nate and his wife Abby, or to Des Moines or Chicago, for shopping and food and just not being at home. Already this year I’ve written QUARRY’S CHOICE and THE LEGEND OF CALEB YORK, a western based on a screenplay Mickey wrote for John Wayne in the late ‘50s, which never got produced. Right now I’m midway through my draft of ANTIQUES SWAP. Next up will be the Florida Mike Hammer novel, KILL ME, DARLING. And there’s a Heller due by year’s end.

Matt and I aren’t working on anything right now, but we’ve just done a proposal for two sequels to SUPREME JUSTICE, which Thomas & Mercer is doing in June, a political thriller. The character is named Joe Reeder and he’s a former Secret Service guy turned consultant. We want to do a trilogy that will cover each branch of government. Matt isn’t taking cover credit, but he’s my collaborator and I make no pretense that he isn’t, and he gets a full page acknowledging that at the front of the book. We plot the books together, he does research and a lengthy story treatment, and I wrote a novel from that.

I enjoy collaborating with Barb and Matt, and Mickey, because the Spillane novels are truly collaborations. But Heller and Quarry are too personal to let anyone else in…though George Hagenauer deserves big thanks for his research help and the brainstorming sessions he participates in.

Really, the books Barb and I do – the ANTIQUES novels, aka the Trash ‘n’ Treasures mysteries, are probably the most popular series I’ve ever been involved with. Barb does a great job and I do my best to help earn my half a byline. Jon Breen says the series is “subversively cozy,” and I like that.