By Jeremy Burns
Max Allan Collins is one of the most prolific mystery authors writing today. With a decades-long career spanning multiple genres and formats, Collins has proven himself to an immensely talented author. He recently took time out from his extraordinarily busy writing schedule to tell THE BIG THRILL about the latest entry in his hit Nathan Heller detective series, TARGET LANCER.
Tell us about your new thriller, TARGET LANCER.
TARGET LANCER looks at a little known aspect of the Kennedy assassination and uses solid historical research as a platform for a thriller, with some mystery novel elements…which is pretty much the standard approach of a Nate Heller novel, though the Heller novels do not exactly have a standard approach, since each historical crime or mystery I explore has its own challenges and parameters.
What was your initial inspiration for TARGET LANCER? How did the story’s premise develop through the early days of your writing process?
Since the first Nathan Heller novel, TRUE DETECTIVE, was written almost thirty years ago, dealing with the assassination of Mayor Cermak, I have had my eye on taking Heller up through the years and eventually doing the JFK killing. Conspiracy is often a part of the Heller novels, particularly the political ones like TRUE DETECTIVE and BLOOD AND THUNDER, which deals with the Huey Long assassination. Originally I figured a Kennedy assassination book would end the series, but I am doing a follow-up now called ASK NOT, dealing with the dead witnesses in the wake of the crime, and I am toying with doing Heller novels about RFK, MLK and even Watergate.
What are some of the ways you’ve conducted research for this novel? Any interesting stories there?
My chief research associate, George Hageaneur, has been with me since the start. George was born and raised in Chicago and could set me straight both on geography and Windy City attitudes. We once went through an elaborate charade to make sure Frank Nitti’s widow was deceased, so I could accuse her of murder without getting sued, and George was once chased by a pack of wild dogs in Cleveland’s Kingsbury Run, when we did the first book-length treatment of the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, BUTCHER’S DOZEN.
Without giving too much away, did you discover anything new or largely unknown about the Kennedy assassination in your research for this book?
The entire novel hinges on a very little known aspect of the case. Originally I was preparing to write a book in which Heller was in Dallas at the time of the crime, just really in the thick of it. Then George and I stumbled onto the Chicago plot, mentioned in passing in numerous books, suggesting that JFK was targeted initially for a November 2 motorcade shooting in Chicago, involving Cuban assassins (actually apprehended by the Secret Service) and a proto-Oswald ex-Marine messed-up patsy. We located an obscure but well-researched article by a respected journalist, and found a few books that gave the plot some space, then did our own research. Without ever going to Dallas, the book convincingly demonstrates that a conspiracy involving mob, CIA and Cuban exiles was responsible for Dallas…or at least I think it does.
How much of yourself do you put in your characters? With which character in TARGET LANCER do you most identify?
Nathan Heller, like all of my protagonists, is me, had I been born into his times and circumstances. He is, on one level, a traditional private eye, kind of an improbable melding of Marlowe and Mike Hammer. On another, he is (I believe) more rounded and real than the standard PI — with parents, grandparents, a wife and a child eventually. He grows older as the times pass, and his one-room agency grows into a major coast-to-coast business.
Which character was the most fun for you to write? Why?
Heller. He is the window into history that allows readers to get inside a famous event and understand and even experience it. I do enjoy famous historical personages as characters, but that’s how I view them — as if I created them. The research into their lives isn’t unlike the kind of thinking most writers do about characters of their own creation. I am not intimidated in the least by these famous people.
In addition to your best-selling Nathan Heller series and other original works, you’ve written licensed novels for big brands like CSI and the novelizations for several movies. Tell us about some of your favorite projects in that arena.
CSI was rewarding because, frankly, we sold a lot of books and introduced my work to many readers. Of the movie novels, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, AIR FORCE ONE and IN THE LINE OF FIRE were also rewarding, and very successful. So was AMERICAN GANGSTER. When I wrote the novelization of the film of my own graphic novel, ROAD TO PERDITION, it was a terrible experience, however, because I was not allowed to introduce anything of my own that wasn’t in the screenplay…even though I was the creator of the source material.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in writing a licensed work versus those in an original work?
Writing a movie novel requires an understanding of filmmaking and screenwriting. I’ve directed some indie films and written my own screenplays and have had a few others produced, so I have a good feel for the differences in the mediums. The more freedom the novelist adapting the screenplay is given, the better the result is likely to be. Ironically, Dreamworks — who had given me carte blance on SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, which has a very good reputation for a movie tie-in — were unrelenting in watering down my PERDITION novel. I turned in 90,000 words and it was cut to around 40,000.
Other than TARGET LANCER, what is your favorite book you’ve written? Why?
I am proud of the entire Heller series, and view it was a collective work, a single project. ROAD TO PERDITION is a favorite because it paid well, obviously, and gave me a major career boost. Probably my most influential work, after Heller, has been the Quarry series, which Hard Case Crime had me revive after many decades. Quarry was the first hitman to helm a series. I’m also getting a big kick out of writing a satirical cozy series with my wife Barb, writing as Barbara Allan — ANTIQUES ROADKILL was the first of those. They’re popular.
What is your favorite book by another author? Why?
Probably THE MALTESE FALCON, because in that book Hammett defined, perfected and then essentially abandoned the classic private eye story. Other favorites include ONE LONELY NIGHT by Mickey Spillane, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler, and THE BAD SEED by William March.
What is your favorite travel destination? Why?
London. They speak English, and so well.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
The flip answer is that it beats having a real job, and I really have rarely had a job other than writing — bussing tables, sacking groceries, a little teaching. But I love storytelling, and love being able to make a living at it — sometimes I’m eking it out, other times it’s a very good living, but since 1977 when I went fulltime pro, it’s always been a living.
What is one thing that would surprise your fans about you or your writing process?
I am lazier than they would guess. Because I’m prolific, they say things like, “When do you sleep?” Like most writers, my greatest area of expertise is work avoidance. But when I am working on a novel, I am very intense about it, working hard, writing fast. My wife says I “go into the bunker.” She does not allow me to do any of the driving when I’m working on a book, because I am so distracted. Living in the book.
What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring/new authors who look up to you?
Learn from your favorite writers, but don’t try to write like just one of them. It’s like Elmore Leonard’s writing rules, most of which are nonsense — follow those and you’ll learn to write like Leonard, and we seem to already have one of those. Whatever success I have probably comes from the many influences — Spillane, Chandler, Hammett, Thompson, Gardner, Christie, Cain, McCoy, Burnett, mainstream offbeat guys like Calder Willingham, William March and Mark Harris. Take in a bunch of stuff, like vitamins, and grow something of your own. Also, if at all possible, start young. I was sending books out in junior high. By college, I was writing at a professional level — not necessarily good books, callow youth that I was, but professionally written. I sold at 22, but that followed probably seven or eight years of sending out manuscripts.
What can we expect next from you, and where can readers go to hear the latest news?
After TARGET LANCER will come SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT from Hard Case Crime, a suspense mystery about the comic book witch hunt of the ’50s. There will be a new Barbara Allan next year, ANTIQUES CHOP, and a thriller called WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU. The latest of my posthumous collaborations with Mickey Spillane, COMPLEX 90, the lost Mike Hammer cold war thriller — see Mike hammer the Rooskies! Late in the year – marking the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination and the 30th anniversary of Nathan Heller — ASK NOT will be published.
From movie novelizations to bestselling franchise spin-offs to hard-broiled detective tales, Max Allan Collins does it all with finesse like few others. Check out TARGET LANCER for another winning entry in his Nathan Heller mystery series when it comes out on November 27th. With the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination right around the corner, maybe TARGET LANCER can finally solve the unanswered questions around this national tragedy. But skeptic or believer, not even the CIA can deny that Collins’s latest thriller will be a great ride.
Max Allan Collins is the bestselling author of the graphic novel Road to Perdition, the basis for the hit film starring Tom Hanks. He has won two Shamus Awards for previous Nathan Heller novels. His most recent Heller mystery was Bye Bye, Baby. He lives in Muscatine, Iowa.
To learn more about Max, please visit his website.