Monday, May 2, 2016

The Look of Travis McGee

Once John D MacDonald made the decision to create the series character Travis McGee he wrote three versions of the first novel before coming up with a person he could “live with.” He sent the book off to his editor at Fawcett Gold Medal, Knox Burger, with the request to hold off publishing it until he could come up with some additional adventures, and once he had three done the go-ahead was given to begin publishing. Then began the editorial preparations for publication, including cover art.

In what seems like an unusual move, Burger chose to have the early covers illustrated by two different artists: one for the main cover and one for an inset of a portrait of McGee himself. Why this was done is anybody’s guess at this point, although I’m sure there is evidence among the MacDonald papers at the University of Florida. Perhaps a clue can be found in the particular artists Burger chose to do these covers, Ron Lesser and, for the likeness of McGee, John McDermott.

Both had done work for Gold Medal up to that point in late 1963, but McDermott was responsible for doing the covers of another crime series, Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. Beginning with the sixth entry in the series, The Ambushers, published in 1963, McDermott took over the cover duties and began adding an inset depiction of Helm. When Fawcett began reprinting earlier titles they had McDermott create new illustrations along with his version of Helm. This was right around the time that MacDonald was submitting his manuscripts of the McGee novels, and I guess Burger thought it a good idea to have McDermott do the same for McGee. Why he chose Lesser to do the covers proper -- always a beautiful girl in some unusual pose -- and not McDermott is not known. Perhaps he didn’t want the two series to become confused in the minds of his customers.

MacDonald was closely involved in the process, and perhaps it was he who had some input into the two-artist decision, although it seems improbable that even an author with MacDonald’s reputation could have had this kind of decision-making power. Nevertheless, he did do his best to make sure the illustration of McGee was in keeping with the picture in his own mind. As evidence, here is a portion of a letter from MacDonald to Burger outlining how the author wanted his new character to be seen. It was written in September 1963, and in places it almost seems as if MacDonald had seen McDermott’s Matt Helm portrait and was giving instructions on how to avoid having it looking similar.

A head that has to belong to a big man. This is done, I suspect, by scale of the ears and eyes… I did not mean to imply light hair. And when I refer to wire hair, I do not mean kinky. I mean the kind of hair that does not respond well to a brush cut. It is short, brown, lays in whorls and mats adhering to heavy skull structure. Eyes very pale gray. This means that he can be given an extraordinarily deep tan… Heavy shelf of brow. Nose straight, slightly disarranged at bridge but not flattened. Wide broad level mouth, but with a long curve of jaw line rather than squared off. No goddam cleft or dimple. This man is no kid. A half block away the face will look more youthful than up close. Plenty of hair in the brows, and it can be sun-touched a half shade lighter than the skin. But the hair should be a no-color, with tendency toward widow’s peak… The expression will be important. Somber, brooding, but slightly quizzical. Instead of trying for it in a flat light, I would like to see strong dramatic side-lighting from below on one side, and fill-in faintly from high on the other, so that immediate impression is of those pale eyes looking out of shadowy strength, sort of lighted from within.

I’ve always thought that McDermott did a terrific job, and this is the McGee I always see in my own mind’s eye when reading the books.

Monday, April 25, 2016

John D MacDonald Audiobooks

The history of spoken word recordings goes back to the invention of recording itself, with Thomas Edison’s reading of the Mother Goose poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Throughout all of the subsequent format changes, from 78 rpm’s to 33 rpms to reel-to-reel to cassette, music may have made the money, but words were always there, available if you knew where to look. I vividly recall growing up with a five-disc 78 of Macbeth, owned by my parents and featuring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in the primary parts. It was the gateway drug to my lifelong love of Shakespeare, and I played those discs to death.

But it was the cassette, portable and relatively cheap, that launched the real audio revolution, as companies were founded to market readings of books, mainly fiction, to the masses. Audiobooks were now portable, playable on the amazingly convenient Walkman or in a player in the dashboard of your car. One of the earliest companies to produce these recordings was Books on Tape, a California company whose business model was renting cassettes of books to subscribers through the mail. They also sold their product to libraries, where cardholders could check them out and make their own recordings. Even though it was expressly forbidden (and one heard this admonition at the beginning of every book), many did.

The digital revolution was another transcendent moment for the industry, with the ability to download audio files onto an iPod or smartphone, leading to a huge spike in popularity. According to the Wall Street Journal in 2014, audiobooks are now a $1.2 billion industry, up from $480 million in 1997. Audible, the industry leader (now owned by Amazon, not surprisingly), has nearly 275,000 audiobooks available for sale, many available with their Whispersync feature, which allows the recorded version to sync with an eBook, permitting the reader/listener to switch seamlessly between formats. Amazing stuff, especially for someone who grew up listening to Shakespeare on 78’s.

The earliest recordings of John D MacDonald novels were done by the Library of Congress for their Talking Books Division, a part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. This service distributes free audio transcriptions through a network of over a hundred regional and sub-regional libraries throughout the country and is available only to eligible patrons. The JDM titles, originally available on either tape or disc, began being produced in the mid-1970’s and included a little over half of the Travis McGee series (Pink, Orange, Lemon, Green and Turquoise were some of the early titles) as well as a smattering of the stand-alones, including Condominium, The Drowner and Where Is Janice Gantry? I’ve never had the opportunity to listen to any of these adaptations and have no idea who performed them. The service is still going strong and I imagine they have modernized to digital downloads and, perhaps, broadened their JDM selections.

Michael Prichard
In 1977 Books on Tape began doing MacDonald, and -- no surprise -- focused on the McGee series. They started, I believe, with the first McGee bestseller, The Dreadful Lemon Sky and also did Gold that year. The books -- all of them -- were read by Michael J Prichard, a Los Angeles stage actor who has gone on to record over 500 books in his career. Speaking in a rich baritone, Prichard’s McGee is done matter-of-factly, with little emotion and minimal efforts to differentiate characters by vocal style or pitch. Still, his McGee is a good one and he got better as the series progressed. Once the listener gets through the first few chapters his rendition it’s a comfortable fit. Here’s an example, the first few paragraphs of The Deep Blue Good-by, which Books on Tape didn’t get around to doing until 1982.

That same year Prichard, who by this time had himself become a big McGee and MacDonald fan, wrote a letter to the JDM Bibliophile which was published in issue #31 in January of 1983.

My job is as a professional reader for a company called Books on Tape, which records full-length, unabridged versions of books, and makes them available by rental to the general public. One of my favorite assignments has been to record MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. So far I’ve recorded all but five of them, but those should go quickly. (However, since Books on Tape wishes to release them over a period of time, I don’t know when they’ll all be available... As any fan, I don’t look forward to running out of McGees; but my bosses at BoT have said that I may also be doing the non-McGees, which I am looking forward to.

The only stand-alones I’m aware of Books on Tape producing was a version of Barrier Island, read by New England actor Jeremiah Kissel, and Condominium, which I’ve never heard and don’t know who performed it.

In 1982 Random House, who would eventually acquire Books on Tape in 2001, recorded an abridged version of then-bestseller Cinnamon Skin and chose film and television actor Kevin Conway to read it. Conway does a great job as the older, wearier McGee of Cinnamon Skin, but it was a one-shot and no attempt to do the earlier books was apparently made at that time. Then, in 1986 Conway did a version of Darker Than Amber for Random House, again doing a great job, but again, the version was abridged. A decision was made after Amber to record the entire series, but instead of using Conway, Random House hired veteran film actor Darren McGavin. McGavin was an inspired choice, having already starred as two very different yet iconic private detectives, Mike Hammer (the Anti-McGee) and Carl Kolchak (yes, Kolchak was a reporter, but a detective in every sense of the word). And although McGavin bore no physical resemblance to the six-foot-four Travis McGee, his take on the character was dead-on, imparting all of the character’s self-awareness and occasional jaundiced view of himself. Also, his performance of the other characters, especially the women, was a step above that of his predecessors; McGavin was acting, not just reading a book.

Over the next seven years Random House Audiobooks produced McGavin versions of all of the remaining titles in the McGee series, minus the two novels that had been done by Conway. These were the first JDM audiobooks available for sale to the general public, and in 1994, the year McGavin recorded the last in the series (Tan -- the titles were not done in order of publication), Random House re-released the entire series -- including the two Conway versions -- as part of their Price Less budget line: each novel on two cassettes in bare bones packaging, priced at $8.99. Who could ask for more?

Well, as it turned out, plenty. Despite the excellent performance and superior production values (each novel featured music in the form of a mournful jazz intro reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic main theme for Chinatown), these were abridged versions, and who want’s to listen to Travis McGee, or any JDM work, abridged? When these were the only JDM audiobooks available one had little choice -- I listened to these novels multiple times travelling back and forth from DC to Tennessee several years ago -- but now that there are other options I rarely put these on my iPod anymore. The abridgements are extremely annoying to the listener familiar with the works, in two ways. First, the text itself is heavily edited. Here’s the same opening passage from Blue, transcribed. The red sentences are ones that have been excised, and the green sentence is one that has been moved to a different point in the text, where I have placed a green asterisk.

It was to have been a quiet evening at home.

Home is the Busted Flush,  52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale.

Home is where the privacy is. Draw all the opaque curtains, button the hatches, and with the whispering drone of the air conditioning masking all the sounds of the outside world, you are no longer cheek to jowl with the random activities aboard the neighbor craft. You could be in a rocket beyond Venus, or under the icecap.

Because it is a room aboard, I call it the lounge, and because that is one of the primary activities.

I was sprawled on a deep curve of the corner couch, studying charts of the keys, trying to work up enough enthusiasm and energy to plan moving the Busted Flush to a new mooring for a while. She has a pair of Hercules diesels, 58 HP each, that will chug her along at a stately six knots. I didn't want to move her. I like Lauderdale. But it had been so long I was wondering if I should.

Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. She had come over because I had the privacy and enough room. She had shoved the furniture out of the way, set up a couple of mirrors from the master stateroom, and set up her rackety little metronome. She wore a faded old rust-red leotard, mended with black thread in a couple of places. She had her black hair tied into a scarf.

She was working hard. She would go over a sequence time and time again, changing it a little each time, and when she was satisfied, she would hurry over to the table and make the proper notations on her clip board.

Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work. She stomped and huffed and contorted her splendid and perfectly proportioned body. * In spite of the air conditioning, she had filled the lounge with a faint sharp-sweet odor of' large overheated girl. She was a pleasant distraction. In the lounge lights there was a highlighted gleam of perspiration on the long round legs and arms.

"Damn!" she said, scowling at her notations.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing I can't fix. I have to figure exactly where everybody is going to be, or I'll have them kicking each other in the face. I get mixed up sometimes."

She scratched out some notes. I went back to checking the low tide depths on the flats northeast of the Content Keys. She worked hard for another ten minutes, made her notes, then leaned against the edge of the table, breathing hard.

"Trav, honey."


"Were you kidding me that time we talked about...about what you do for a living?"

"What did I say?"

"It sounded sort of strange, but I guess I believed you. You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you on that until it starts to run out. Is that the way it is, really?"

"It's a simplification, Chook, but reasonably accurate."

The second form of editing was to lop out entire sections of the novel and replace them with a synopsis read by a narrator (not McGavin). These sections seem to have been done when random sentence editing would have done too much damage to the narrative. Here’s how a large chunk of Cathy Kerr’s story of her time with Junior Allen is heard, beginning at the top of page 11 of the first edition:

McGavin (as Cathy): “When Mother died it was good to have him close. Christine stopped her job because somebody had to be with the kids, but with me and Junior Allen working, there was just enough to get by. There was one thing strange in all that time he was with us.”

Narrator: Cathy told Travis that Junior Allen had constantly asked questions about her father, and in hindsight she realized he was hunting for clues. Using a variety of excuses, he managed to dig up just about every part of the yard. Then one morning she woke to find him gone. He had taken apart the rock markers at the end of the driveway and left behind only a piece of rotten cloth, that might once been army color. Junior Allen’s last search had apparently been rewarded.

McGavin (resuming as Cathy): “He took along his personal things, so I knew it was just like Wally Kerr all over again. No good looking for him.”

These annoying synopses appear throughout the recording and really detract from what could have been the definitive audio versions of the Travis McGee series.

Twenty years later much had changed. The cassette had gone the way of the dodo and audio was almost exclusively digital. In 2012 a company called Brilliance Audio (part of Amazon) was granted the rights to produce audio versions of the McGee series and they hired a New York stage actor named Robert Petkoff to do the readings. Petkoff possesses some serious acting chops and had extensive theatrical credentials (I saw him back in 1994 in a production of Romeo and Juliet, where he had the thankless role of Paris), including both film and television experience. The audiobooks were marketed both as CD sets and CD-MP3’s to libraries and the general public. Mystery writer and JDM fan Lee Child was hired to do a brief introduction, which appeared on all of the novels. Audible and other similar web services offer digital download to a computer or mobile device. (For some reason, the Lee Child intros are absent the Audible versions.) As far as I have been able to tell, these audiobooks have sold very, very well.

Robert Petkoff
Of the four actors who have taken on the role of McGee, Petkoff is my favorite. He certainly has the greatest range of the group, and he attacks the books with energy and enthusiasm. You get the sense that he is enjoying reading these books and that he likes the character of McGee. His rendition of the other characters comes closer to acting than than any of his predecessors, modulating his voice and using accents when needed (his take on Lady Becky in Indigo is a scream). And therein lies one of the quandaries of “performing” a work of fiction in the first person singular. Since all of the action is told through the voice of the narrator, does one become that character or merely relate what that character did and said? There’s no right or wrong, of course, but it does make one question the reliability of the narrator: how close to the truth is McGee’s account of the action? 

Here's a sample of Petkoff from that same section of Blue:

The Brilliance Audio/Audible McGee’s were so successful that the company began producing versions of some of MacDonald’s stand alone novels. To date they have done The Brass Cupcake, A Flash of Green, A Key to the Suite, Condominium (all read by Richard Ferrone), Dead Low Tide, The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything, The Executioners (under the Cape Fear title), Slam the Big Door (all read by Stephen Hove) and two versions of the same novel, A Bullet for Cinderella, one under that title (read by Tom S Weiss) and another under its alternate title On the Make (read by Robert Armin). Nowhere on Audible’s website does it reveal that these two audiobooks are the same novel.

I’ve purchased several of these titles and all are quite good, with one reservation. Stephen Hove, who did a superlative job with The Executioners, does a less that adequate rendition of Bonny Lee in The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything, making her sound more like Ellie Mae Clampett than a John D MacDonald character.

One final John D MacDonald audiobook I’m aware of is yet another version of A Bullet for Cinderella. This novel appears to be the only JDM book-length work that has fallen into the public domain, allowing Gutter Press to reprint the novel in 2010 as On the Make. (For background on the two titles, you can read my piece on A Bullet for Cinderella here.) It has also opened the door for LibriVox, a non-commercial, non-profit company that specializes in producing public domain audiobooks read by volunteers, to make their own version of the novel. It’s read by Winston Tharp, who does an amazing job of conveying the lost quality of the book’s protagonist, Tal Howard, a former POW in search of both treasure and some meaning in his life. It’s one of the best JDM audiobooks out there and it is 100% free! You can download it from here.

It seems entirely probable that more audio versions of JDM’s works will soon become available, although I have no inside information myself. And while audiobooks will never replace actual reading -- at least for me -- it is a wonderful way to experience the works as interpreted by other artists. Nowadays I find myself actually looking forward to getting stuck in rush hour traffic...

Monday, April 11, 2016

Travis McGee Chronology Update

April and May are typically very busy months for me, both at work and home, and I usually end up missing a week or two of blogging during this period. This year will be even more extreme, as my wife and I welcomed grandchild number three to the family a few days ago. So don't be surprised to see a week go by with no update here, or one requiring only a little time and effort to put together (like last week's).

This week I updated a previous posting, "The Chronology of the Travis McGee Novels," with a couple of paragraphs of facts and figures that lead me to a completely different conclusion. You can click here, or the link in the Resources box in the right column.

Monday, April 4, 2016

How to Build Your Own Truck

Although there is no mention of a Rolls Royce in the article below, I wonder if a young John D MacDonald happened to have read it and stored it away in some deep recess of his memory. It comes from the June 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix and Inventions.

(If you have to ask why, you're visiting the wrong blog!)

Monday, March 28, 2016

"Common Denominator"

John D MacDonald’s science fiction received little if any critical attention during his lifetime. Besides the book reviews of his three sf novels -- almost all of which appeared in science fiction magazines -- and Martin H. Greenberg’s introduction to his 1978 short story collection Other Times, Other Worlds, I’m not aware of any serious attempt by anyone to come to terms with the body of this material. Well, there was one attempt, by Edgar Hirshberg in his 1980 biography of the author, but like much of the rest of that effort it is superficial, banal and, in many places, downright feckless. No one could realistically call it “serious.” . In nearly eight pages on the subject Hirshberg discusses the novels and only four short works, all of which were stories collected in Other Times, Other Worlds. He hashes out plots, quotes MacDonald’s Afterwards, and manages -- like he does throughout the book -- to get plot points and other details wrong.

Still, he somehow stumbles onto the truth in his overall assessment of MacDonald’s approach to science fiction, even if it is only partially correct. His second paragraph of the section reads:

What distinguishes MacDonald's science fiction from most of the other work in the same genre is the fact that he is more interested in the human results of the twentieth-century scientific revolution that he is in the revolution itself. He had something to say about the human condition in these stories, and not necessarily about science. What he was writing, then, in a sense, was what Isaac Asimov once termed “Social Science Fiction,” which he defined as “that branch of Literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.”

Since Hirshberg hadn’t bothered to read any of MacDonald’s sf short stories that didn’t make it into Other Times, Other Worlds, it is highly doubtful that he read much other science fiction, certainly not enough to allow him to be able to differentiate MacDonald’s work from that of other authors. And how is “most” science fiction not concerned with the human condition? Pick up any issue of Galaxy, or Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction and that’s pretty much all you will find. And there is plenty of JDM sf that doesn’t fit this mold, from space opera to romance to pulpy horror.

John D MacDonald’s great burst of interest in science fiction, which began in 1947 and peaked in 1949 and 1950, was coming to a very quick  end by 1951, the year he had two stories published in the recently launched sf digest Galaxy. Both tales, “Susceptibility” and “Common Denominator,” take place in a distant future where the people of Earth are exploring and colonizing the galaxy. The central governments of these two futures are nearly identical in their rigid rulemaking and Byzantine bureaucracies, with a separate bureau and agency for every aspect of government, science and social life. In “Susceptibility” the author deals with the Colonial Adjustment Bureau, as the focus of that story is on the colonization of otherwise uninhabited planets.  In “Common Denominator” we deal with three different bureaus, each in a specific pecking order.

The crew of Scout Group Forty has just returned from halfway across the galaxy, where they have encountered and brought back data on Argus Ten, a Class Seven civilization living on three separate planets. Class Sevens are scientifically advanced societies and, as such, pose a potentially high danger to Earth. The crew is quarantined and the data is scrutinized by the Bureau of Stellar Defense to determine any possible threat. It is eventually determined that the people of Argus Ten pose no threat, and indeed seem utterly harmless, if overly placid, creatures. Humanoid in design and appearance, "the bipedal, oxygen-breathing vertebrate with opposing thumbs" could pass anywhere in the universe as human.

The flesh tones were brightly pink, like that of a sunburned human. Cranial hair was uniformly taffy-yellow. The were heavier and more fleshy than humans. Their women had a pronounced Rubens look, a warm, moist, rosy, comfortable look. Everyone remarked on the placidity and contentment of facial expressions, by human standards. The inevitable comparison was made. The Argonauts looked like a race of inn and beer-garden proprietors in the Bavarian Alps. With leather pants to slap, stein lids to click, feathers in Tyrolean hats and peasant skirts on their women, they would represent a culture and a way of life that had been missing from Earth for far too many generations.

With no apparent danger of intermingling, the data is passed on to the Bureau of Stellar Trade and Economy, whose job it is to analyze a possible mercantile relationship with Argus Ten. The first trade group brings back an assortment of both useful and frivolous inventions, along with a group of Argonauts, whose benign, friendly demeanor and amusing accents cause most Earth residents to consider them as pets.

Once all of the data is reviewed by the “important” bureaus, it eventually becomes available to the Bureau of Racial Maturity, an underfunded, poorly-manned and almost forgotten agency within the government, headed by historian-anthropologist- sociologist Dr. Lambert, a "crag-faced, sandy, slow-moving" man whose concern that mankind has advanced too quickly is the bureau's main focus. Lambert hopes that records from alien civilizations will give him an answer to counteract this too-rapid development. After months and months of research he makes some findings that seem to him highly unusual: both war and crime on the alien planet are virtually unknown, and they stopped abruptly eight thousand years ago. Why did this happen? Lambert decides to make a trip to Argus Ten in order to find out…

After much serious analytical narrative, complete with charts and graphs and animated film, the denouement of the story is fairly outrageous, even within its own terms. MacDonald held some interesting beliefs regarding humanity that became more and more absolutist over time, to the point in 1978 he wrote that he believed mankind to be “a virulent infection eroding this green planet even while we use it to sustain our teeming life form.” He explored this belief in his 1955 short story “Virus H,” and even had a Travis McGee soliloquy opining this creed in A Deadly Shade of Gold. His solution in “Common Denominator” seems equally extreme.

The story first appeared in the July 1951 issue of Galaxy and was subsequently anthologized in both the Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction (1952) and Other Times, Other Worlds. Unfortunately that excellent anthology is one of the very few JDM works that has not been digitized for sale as an eBook. Still, this particular story has just become available for sale and an eStory(?) on Amazon for a mere 99-cents. Better yet, one can go to Project Gutenberg and download the story for free. According to the good folks at PG, the story’s copyright has lapsed and is now in the public domain.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Creative Trust

In 1965 John D MacDonald wrote the following to a fan who wanted to become a writer and was asking for advice.

I will tell you what I tell everybody who wants to write -- I tell them -- forget it. There are a thousand easier ways to make a living. You have to have the nerves of a gambler, and an ego the size of Mt. Washington, and enough energy to take you through about 500 seventy and eighty hour weeks in a row without a break, without getting sick or beat down. Forget it, you won’t make it.

And this is my paradox. The ones who take that advice wouldn’t make it anyway.

This kind of wary advice was repeated by MacDonald throughout his life, dissuading would-be authors with all kinds of requirements few could ever meet. Still, he wrote often about his craft in an effort to help the serious would-be writers, with practical, analytical advice that reflected his own struggles as a beginner. As early as 1950 he wrote a piece for the Writer’s Yearbook titled “Professionally Yours,” where he outlined the various ways he treated his craft as a business. He continued to produce articles throughout his career, in periodicals such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Author’s Guild Bulletin, with instructive titles like “How a Character Becomes Believable,” “How to Start a Story,” “The Biggest Stumbling Block,” and “The Editor Over My Shoulder.”

In 1974 he wrote a piece for The Writer titled “Creative Trust,”  which goes a long way toward explaining MacDonald’s own approach to creating believable stories. I’ve quoted from it in the past, but though I would present the article here in its entirety. It appeared in the magazine’s January issue and was subsequently reprinted in the 1984 edition of The Writer’s Handbook.

The writer and the reader are involved in a creative relationship. The writer must provide the materials with which the reader will construct bright pictures in his head. The reader will use those materials as a partial guide and will finish the pictures with the stuff from his own life experience.

I do not intend to patronize the reader with this analogy: The writer is like a person trying to entertain a listless child on a rainy afternoon.

You set up a card table, and you lay out pieces of cardboard, construction paper, scissors, paste, crayons. You draw a rectangle and you construct a very colorful little fowl and stick it in the foreground, and you say, "This is a chicken." You cut out a red square and put it in the background and say, "This is a barn." You construct a bright yellow truck and put it in the background on the other side of the frame and say, "This is a speeding truck. Is the chicken going to get out of the way in time? Now you finish the picture."

If the child has become involved, he will get into the whole cut-and-paste thing, adding trees, a house, a fence, a roof on the barn. He will crayon a road from the truck to the chicken. You didn't say a word about trees, fences, houses, cows, roofs. The kid puts them in because he knows they are the furniture of farms. He is joining in the creative act, enhancing the tensions of the story by adding his uniquely personal concepts of the items you did not mention, but which have to be there.

Or the child could cross the room, turn a dial and see detailed pictures on the television tube. What are the ways you can lose him?

You can lose him by putting in too much of the scene. That turns him into a spectator. "This is a chicken. This is a fence. This is an apple tree. This is a tractor." He knows those things have to be there. He yawns. And pretty soon, while you are cutting and pasting and explaining, you hear the gunfire of an old western.

You can lose him by putting in too little. "This is a chicken," you say, and leave him to his own devices. Maybe he will put the chicken in a forest, or in a supermarket. Maybe the child will invent the onrushing truck, or a chicken hawk. Too much choice is as boring as too little. Attention is diffused, undirected.

You can put in the appropriate amount of detail and still lose him by the way you treat the chicken, the truck, and the barn. Each must have presence. Each must be unique. The chicken. Not a chicken. He is eleven weeks old. He is a rooster named Melvin who stands proud and glossy in the sunlight, but tends to be nervous, insecure and hesitant. His legs are exceptionally long, and in full flight he has a stride you wouldn't believe.

If you cannot make the chicken, the truck, and the barn totally specific, then it is as if you were using dingy gray paper for those three ingredients, and the child will not want to use his own bright treasure to complete the picture you have begun.

We are analogizing here the semantics of image, of course. The pace and tension and readability of fiction are as dependent upon your control and understanding of these phenomena as they are upon story structure and characterization.

Here is a sample: The air conditioning unit in the motel room had a final fraction of its name left, an "aire" in silver plastic, so loose that when it resonated to the coughing thud of the compressor, it would blur. A rusty water stain on the green wall under the unit was shaped like the bottom half of Texas. From the stained grid, the air conditioner exhaled its stale and icy breath into the room, redolent of chemicals and of someone burning garbage far, far away.

Have you not already constructed the rest of the motel room? Can you not see and describe the bed, the carpeting, the shower? O.K., if you see them already, I need not describe them for you. If I try to do so, I become a bore. And the pictures you have composed in your head are more vivid than the ones I would try to describe.

No two readers will see exactly the same motel room. No two children will construct the same farm. But the exercise of the need to create gives both ownership and involvement to the motel room and the farm, to the air conditioner and to the chicken and to their environments.

Sometimes, of course, it is useful to go into exhaustive detail. That is when a different end is sought. In one of the Franny and Zooey stories, Salinger describes the contents of a medicine cabinet shelf by shelf in such infinite detail that finally a curious monumentality is achieved, reminiscent somehow of that iron sculpture by David Smith called "The Letter."

Here is a sample of what happens when you cut the images out of gray paper: "The air conditioning unit in the motel room window was old and somewhat noisy."

See? Because the air conditioning unit has lost its specificity, its unique and solitary identity, the room has blurred also. You cannot see it as clearly. It is less real.


I hate to come across a whole sentence in caps when I am reading something. But here, it is of such importance, and so frequently misunderstood and neglected, I inflict caps upon you with no apology. The environment can seem real only when the reader has helped construct it. Then he has an ownership share in it. If the air conditioner is unique, then the room is unique, and the person in it is real.

What item to pick? There is no rule. Sometimes you can use a little sprinkling of realities, a listing of little items which make a room unique among all rooms in the world: A long living room with one long wall painted the hard blue of Alpine sky and kept clear of prints and paintings, with a carved blonde behemoth piano, its German knees half-bent under its oaken weight, and with a white Parsons table covered by a vivid collection of French glass paperweights.

I trust the reader to finish the rest of that room in his head, without making any conscious effort to do so. The furnishings will be appropriate to his past observations.

How to make an object unique? (Or where do I find the colored paper for the rooster?) Vocabulary is one half the game, and that can come only from constant, omnivorous reading, beginning very early in life. If you do not have that background, forget all about trying to write fiction. You'll save yourself brutal disappointment. The second half of the game is input. All the receptors must be wide open. You must go through the world at all times looking at the things around you. Texture, shape, style, color, pattern, movement. You must be alert to the smell, taste, sound of everything you see, and alert to the relationships between the aspects of objects, and of people. Tricks and traits and habits, deceptive and revelatory.

There are people who have eyes and cannot see. I have driven friends through country they have never seen before and have had them pay only the most cursory attention to the look of the world. Trees are trees, houses are houses, hills are hills -- to them. Their inputs are all turned inward, the receptors concerned only with Self. Self is to them the only reality, the only uniqueness. Jung defines these people in terms of the "I" and the "Not I" The "I" person conceives of the world as being a stage setting for Self, to the point where he cannot believe other people are truly alive and active when they are not sharing that stage with Self. Thus nothing is real unless it has a direct and specific bearing on Self.

The writer must be a Not-I, a person who can see the independence of all realities and know that the validity of object or person can be appraised and used by different people in different ways. The writer must be the observer, the questioner. And that is why the writer should be wary of adopting planned eccentricities of appearance and behavior, since, by making himself the observed rather than the observer, he dwarfs the volume of input he must have to keep his work fresh.

Now we will assume you have the vocabulary, the trait of constant observation plus retention of the telling detail. And at this moment -- if I am not taking too much credit --you have a new appraisal of the creative relationship of writer and reader. You want to begin to use it.

The most instructive thing you can do is to go back over past work, published or unpublished, and find the places where you described something at length, in an effort to make it unique and special, but somehow you did not bring it off. (I do this with my own work oftener than you might suppose.)
Now take out the subjective words. For example, I did not label the air conditioner as old, or noisy, or battered, or cheap. Those are evaluations the reader should make. Tell how a thing looks, not your evaluation of what it is from the way it looks. Do not say a man looks seedy. That is a judgment, not a description. All over the world, millions of men look seedy, each one in his own fashion. Describe a cracked lens on his glasses, a bow fixed with stained tape, tufts of hair growing out of his nostrils, an odor of old laundry.

This is a man. His name is Melvin. You built him out of scraps of bright construction paper and put him in front of the yellow oncoming truck.

The semantics of image is a special discipline. Through it you achieve a reality which not only makes the people more real, it makes the situation believable, and compounds the tension.

If a vague gray truck hits a vague gray man, his blood on gray pavement will be without color or meaning.

When a real yellow truck hits Melvin, man or rooster, we feel that mortal thud deep in some visceral place where dwells our knowledge of our own oncoming death.

You have taken the judgment words out of old descriptions and replaced them with the objective words of true description. You have taken out the things the reader can be trusted to construct for himself.

Read it over. Is there too much left, or too little? When in doubt, opt for less rather than more.
We all know about the clumsiness the beginning writer shows when he tries to move his people around, how he gets them into motion without meaning. We all did it in the beginning. Tom is in an office on one side of the city, and Mary is in an apartment on the other side. So we walked him into the elevator, out through the foyer, into a cab, all the way across town, into another foyer, up in the elevator, down the corridor to Mary's door. Because it was motion without meaning, we tried desperately to create interest with some kind of ongoing interior monologue. Later we learned that as soon as the decision to go see Mary comes to Tom, we need merely skip three spaces and have him knocking at Mary's door. The reader knows how people get across cities, and get in and out of buildings. The reader will make the instantaneous jump.

So it is with description. The reader knows a great deal. He has taste and wisdom, or he wouldn't be reading. Give him some of the vivid and specific details which you see, and you can trust him to build all the rest of the environment. Having built it himself, he will be that much more involved in what is happening, and he will cherish and relish you the more for having trusted him to share in the creative act of telling a story.