An Interview with Max Allan Collins
by Anecia Ascalon
Max Allan Collins has earned an unprecedented twenty-three Private Eye Writers of America “Shamus” nominations, winning for his Nathan Heller novels, True Detective (1983) and Stolen Away (1991), and his short story “So Long, Chief” (with Mickey Spillane). Collins has written five suspense novel series, short fiction, and movie/TV tie-in novels, including Air Force One, The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King, and the New York Times bestselling Saving Private Ryan. His graphic novel Road to Perdition (1998) became the Academy Award-winning Tom Hanks film, and his career has been followed with numerous film, television, directorial, and book collaborations.
Wolfpack: How did you get your start writing?
MAC: My obsession as a child, starting even before I could read, was comic books. I was a good artist, for a kid – always was the best among my schoolmates – and I decided I was going to be a cartoonist from around age five. I drew home-made comic books, writing my own stories. This continued into junior high, when for some time I wrote and drew my own homemade Mad Magazine imitation, called Psycho Ward. I would do one issue a week, just one original and no copies, passing it around to my friends and classmates. Then the next week I’d repeat the process.
But I’d also been a reader of mystery fiction, starting with Sherlock Holmes and the Saint, propelled by loving Dick Tracy comics. I got into trouble in the fourth and fifth grade for bringing paperbacks with risque covers to school – my parents were called in several times by worried faculty. Looks like the faculty was right!
Much of what I read came out of movies and television I’d seen. If I saw a film or TV show based on a book, I had to read that book. I imagine I was the only third-grader in the world who read Topper by Thorne Smith, but I loved the TV show, so reading the book seemed required to me. I read Sherlock Holmes, of course, though I don’t remember what brought me to the Saint, but I loved those books and short stories.
Then in the late ‘50s, there was a private eye craze on TV, and many of the series had their origins in novels and/or short stories. That led me to Dashiell Hammett – there was a Thin Man TV series – and Raymond Chandler – there was a Phillip Marlowe show. 77 Sunset Strip was from a Roy Huggins novel. Finally the Mike Hammer series with Darren McGavin led me to Mickey Spillane in the eighth grade – I’d tried to buy those books earlier than that, but the local news dealer wouldn’t sell them to me, because they were “dirty.”
The combination of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane – and shortly thereafter, James M. Cain – completed my education and corruption. In making my own stories, the art fell by the wayside and the writing took over.
Wolfpack: What would you consider the highlight of your career?
MAC: I have been a professional writer since 1971, so I can’t narrow it to one. I can give you four, starting with being chosen to take over the writing of the Dick Tracy comic strip when its creator, Chester Gould, retired. I had published several novels – Bait Money and Blood Money in my Nolan series – that had a lot of comic references in them, which got me noticed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate people. That jump-started my career, allowed me to go fulltime at a young age. I wrote the strip for fifteen years.
The next highlight was writing – and winning the Best Novel “Shamus Award” from the Private Eye Writers of America – for my first Nathan Heller novel, True Detective. I was up against the top names in the genre and, a punk relative newcomer, beat them all. That’s still satisfying.
Probably the biggest deal was having my graphic novel, Road to Perdition, made into an Academy Award-winning film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, directed by Sam Mendes. For years my big credit had been Dick Tracy, but it wasn’t mine – I hadn’t created it. Road to Perdition was something famous that could be put on book covers with “author of,” and that was and continues to be useful.
Finally, getting the Great Master “Edgar” from the Mystery Writers of America in 2017 was the greatest honor I ever received, other than having Barbara Mull says “yes” when I asked her to marry me in 1968.
Wolfpack: What do you find to be most challenging in the writing process?
MAC: The writing process is second nature to me. The challenges – always a euphemism for “problems” – come with the business end. For example, I lost the Dick Tracy strip after a very successful run when a new editor came in and we did not hit it off. Having a book orphaned at a publisher when your editor is fired and a new one comes in is a problem many, perhaps most, writers face from time to time.
Currently, political correctness on the editorial end is a challenge, particularly for a writer like me who frequently sets his stories in the Twentieth Century. I can’t use “African-American” set in a novel before that term came into wide use, or call females under thirty a “young woman” when the male character of those times would use “girl.” It’s a personal and editorial wrestling match.
Then there’s the simple fact that freelance writing is a small business, with all of the concerns and problems of any small business. It’s a job. People often ask me, “Why do you write so much?” And I say, “Why do you go to work five days a week?”
Wolfpack: How do you get over writer’s block?
MAC: I have never had it. This ties in with what we were just discussing – a plumber doesn’t say, “Can’t go in today – I’ve got plumber’s block.” Blocks in the plumbing are what he’s paid to deal with, after all. A physician doesn’t have physician’s block – she has sick patients to heal. And so on.
For me, nothing cures writer’s block faster than the threat of the first of the month.
Wolfpack: What advice can you give to other writers?
MAC: Professional writing is like old age – not for sissies.
You have to understand that it’s a business more than an art, and it’s a craft more than an art (which, as Raymond Chandler said, just sometimes happens, like red hair).
I will say this. If you are young, start writing now. I’ve had the career that I’ve had because I started sending out manuscripts in junior high. I wrote three novels in high school and learned about the craft, by doing, and about the business, by getting rejection slips. Everything I wrote in college I sold. That was because I had learned my trade by the time I got to college.
For late bloomers, I would invoke William Faulkner, who reportedly gave an after-dinner address to a group of writing students by asking them why they weren’t home writing.
Wolfpack: What other writers and authors inspire you?
MAC: No one currently writing, frankly. I view them as the competition. The exception is the work of my friends in the business, because their personalities are reflected in their work and, since I like them, I tend to like what they do.
My favorites are those already mentioned, plus Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, Chester Himes, and Ian Fleming. Mainstream writers I admire are mostly not the big names – such relative obscurities as William March, author of The Bad Seed; Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm; Mark Harris, author of The Southpaw; Calder Willingham, author of End as a Man.
I am a movie buff and have, in fact, written and directed films myself. Directors I admire are Alfred Hitchcock, Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, Douglas Sirk, Brian DePalma, the Coens, John Woo, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and many others. Chinatown and Kiss Me Deadly are favorite films that have influenced my work greatly. Unlike many writers, I am an advocate of the auteur theory, because the director really is the author of a film, or should be.
Wolfpack: What book genres do you like to read?
MAC: Obviously, mystery/crime/suspense is the major one, but I pretty much restrict myself to the writers who came before me. I read little fiction now, mostly research for my historical fiction and biographies.
Wolfpack: What has been your favorite series to write?
MAC: It’s close between Nathan Heller and Quarry. Quarry is the most fun to write, because anything goes with him. Heller is the most satisfying, but the research is back-breaking. I love the cozy Antiques series I do with my wife, Barb, because they are so overtly funny – the Mother character, Vivian Borne, is so out there you can’t give her anything too wacky to do or say. Political correctness is a non-issue for her.
Wolfpack: How did you come up with your favorite character that you have written?
MAC: Heller came from my observation that the private eye had been around long enough to exist in history, not just in historical context – that the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, so identified with Hammet and Chandler and Spillane, meant a private eye novel could involve real, unsolved crimes. That instead of Phillip Marlowe meeting an Al Capone type, Al Capone could meet a Phillip Marlowe type.
Quarry was based on two sources – first, Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated combat soldier of WWII, who became a movie star but clearly suffered from PTSD; and a good friend of mine from high school, who was a combat Marine in Vietnam. His name was Jon McRae and he often spent his leaves with Barb and me in Muscatine, Iowa, where we lived then and still do. Jon would take me to a garbage dump and have me shoot the guns I was writing about, so I wasn’t just faking it. After Vietnam, he lived here in town for a while and then later in California, and we saw him often. He was a career Marine, a Warrant Officer. He was funny but very messed up, and the aspect of Quarry coming home from the war to find his wife cheating on him came from Jon’s experience.
Wolfpack: What is an unforgettable opportunity you have had that came from your writing?
MAC: Being able to write for a living is the unforgettable opportunity.