Grillling Ed McBain

by Evan Hunter

Evan Hunter: I'm often asked why I chose to
use the name Ed McBain on my crime fiction. I always
respond that when I first started writing the 87th
Precinct novels …
Ed McBain: I thought I was the one who wrote
the 87th Precinct novels.

EH: The point is …
McB: The point is, we chose the McBain pseudonym
because we didn't want to mislead people.

EH: Mislead them how?
McB: Into believing they were buying a mainstream
novel, and then opening the book to find a man with an
axe sticking out of his head.

EH: Yes. But in addition to that, mysteries back then
were considered the stepchildren of literature, and …
McB: They still are, in many respects.

EH: You surely don't believe that.
McB: I believe that a grudging amount of respect is
given to a good mystery writer. But if you want to win
either the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, stay
far away from corpses among the petunias.

EH: You've been writing about corpses among the
petunias …
McB: Other places, too. Not only in flower beds.

EH: For 33 years now. You've remarked that you begin
work at 9 in the morning and quit at 5 in the …
McB: Don't you?

EH: Exactly.
McB: Just like an honest job.

EH: But I wonder if you can share with us how you
manage such a regimen. It must require a great deal of
McB: No. Discipline has nothing whatever to do with it.
Discipline implies someone standing over you with a
whip, forcing you to do the job. If you have to be forced
to write, then it's time to look for another job. If you don't
love every minute of it, even the donkey work of endless
revisions, then quit.

EH: Do you make endless revisions?
McB: Not endless, no. One of the most important things
about writing is to know when something is finished.

EH: When is it finished?
McB: When it works.

EH: But how many revisions do you make?
McB: As many as are required to make the thing work. A
good piece of fiction works. You can read it backward
and forward, or from the middle toward both ends, and
it will work. If a scene isn't working, if a passage of
dialogue isn't working …

EH: What do you mean by working?
McB: Serving the purpose for which it was intended. Is it
supposed to make my hair stand on end? If my hair
isn't standing on end, the scene isn't working. Is it
supposed to make me cry? Then there had better be
tears on my cheeks when I finish it.

EH: Do you make these revisions as you go along, or
do you save them all up for the end?
McB: I usually spend the first few hours each morning
rewriting what I wrote the day before. Then, every five
chapters or so, I'll reread from the beginning and
rewrite where necessary. Happily, nothing is engraved
in stone until the book is published. You can go back
over it again and again until it works.

EH: There's that word again.
McB: It's a word I like.

EH: How do you start a mystery novel?
McB: How do you start a mainstream novel?

EH: With a theme, usually.
McB: I start with a corpse, usually. Or with someone
about to become a corpse.

EH: Actually, though, that's starting with a theme, isn't
McB: Yes, in that murder is the theme of most
mysteries. Even mysteries that start out with blackmail
as the theme, or kidnapping, or arson, eventually get
around to murder.

EH: How do you mean?
McB: Well, take a private eye novel, for example. When
you're writing this sort of book, it's not necessary to
discover a body on page one. In fact, most private
eyes—in fiction and in real life—aren't hired to
investigate murders.

EH: Why are they hired?
McB: Oh, for any number of reasons. Someone is
missing, someone is unfaithful, someone is stealing,
someone is preparing a will, or inheriting money, or
settling his son's gambling debts, or what have you. But
hardly any of these reasons for employment have to do
with murder. In fact, the odd thing about private-eye
fiction is that the presence of the PI on the scene is
usually what causes a murder. Had the PI not been
hired, there'd have been no body.

EH: What about other categories of mystery fiction?
McB: Such as?

EH: Well, Man on the Run, for example. Is it necessary
to start with a body in this type of story?
McB: That depends on why the guy is running, doesn't

EH: Why would he be running?
McB: Because he did something.

EH: Like what?
McB: Anything but murder. If he's done murder, you can
hardly ever recover this guy; he's already beyond the
pale, so forget him as a hero. I would also forget rape,
kidnapping, terrorism, child abuse, and arson as
crimes to consider for your hero. But if he's committed a
less serious crime—such as running off with a few
thousand dollars of the bank's money—then the police
are after him, and he must run. And running, he meets
a lot of different people, one of whom he usually falls in
love with, and experiences a great many things that
influence his life and cause him to change—for the
better, we hope.

EH: That's what fiction is all about, isn't it? Change?
McB: I like to think so.

EH: But surely there are dead bodies in a
Man-on-the-Run novel.
McB: Oh, sure. Along the way. I'm merely saying that in
this sub-genre of Man on the Run, it isn't essential to
start with a corpse.

EH: Are there other sub-genres?
McB: Of Man on the Run? Sure. We were talking about a
man who'd actually done something. But we can also
have a man who's done absolutely nothing.

EH: Then why would he be running?
McB: Because the something he didn't do is usually
murder. And that's where we do find a corpse.
Immediately. For the police to find. So that they can
accuse our man, and come looking for him, which
prompts him to flee, fly, flew in order to solve the
murder and clear his name while of course falling in
love with someone along the way.

EH: A Man on the Run can also be a person who knows
something, isn't that so?
McB: Yes. Where the body is buried, or who caused the
body to become a body, or even who's about to become
a body. Dangerous knowledge of this sort can cause a
person to become a man who knows too much and
who must flee north by northwest in order to escape
becoming a body himself.

EH: On the other hand, it isn't necessary that he really
be in possession of dangerous knowledge, is it?
McB: No. As a matter of fact, he can know absolutely
nothing. In which case, he merely appears to know
something which the bad guys thing he actually does

EH: And this semblance of knowledge becomes even
more dangerous to him than the knowledge itself
would have been because he doesn't even know why
someone wants him dead.
McB: In either case, a body is the essential element
that sets the plot spinning.

EH: A body, or a substitute for one. The body doesn't
have to be an actual stiff, does it?
McB: No, it can be what Alfred Hitchcock called the
MacGuffin. I prefer the real thing, but there are many
successful thrillers that utilize to great effect a
substitute corpse.

EH: Can you give us some examples?
McB: Well, the classic Woman in Jeopardy story, for
example, may very well be Wait Until Dark, where a
blind woman unknowingly carries through customs a
doll in which the bad guys have planted dope. They
want the dope back. So they come after her.

EH: That's a woman in jeopardy, all right.
McB: In spades.

EH: A gender reversal of Man on the Run.
McB: Which all Woman in Jeopardy stories are. In this
case, the substitute corpse is a doll—a graven lifeless
image of a human being. The woman doesn't know
where the body is buried, but they think she does.
Without the doll—that is, without the corpse—there'd be
no reason to stalk and terrify this woman, and there'd
be no thriller.

EH: And in much the same way that our Man on the Run
learns and changes from his hair-raising escapades,
so does our Woman in Jeopardy become stronger and
wiser by the end of her ordeal.
McB: Leaving the reader or the viewer feeling
immensely satisfied.

EH: Let's get back to the way you begin one of your
McB: With a corpse, yes. Well, actually, before the
corpse, there's a title.

EH: I find titles difficult.
McB: I find them easy. I look for resonance. A title that
suggests many different things. For example, the title
Ice seemed to offer limitless possibilities for
development. Ice, of course, is what water becomes
when it freezes. So the title dictated that the novel be set
during the wintertime, when there is ice and snow…ah.
Snow. Snow is another name for cocaine. So, all right,
there'll be cocaine in the plot. But in underworld jargon,
to ice someone means to kill him. And ice also means
diamonds. And, further, ice is the name for a box-office
scam in which tickets to hit shows are sold for
exorbitant prices. The title had resonance.

EH: A lot of people had trouble with one of my titles.
McB: Which one?

EH: Love, Dad.
McB: That's because it's a terrible title, very difficult to
say. You have to say, "My new book is called Love
Comma Dad." Otherwise, no one will know what you're
talking about.

EH: Most people thought the title was Dear Dad.
McB: Why?

EH: I don't know why. Actually, I thought Love, Dad was
a wonderful title.
McB: You should have called it No Drums, No Bugles.

EH: Why?
McB: Were there any drums or bugles in it?

EH: No.
McB: There you go.

EH: Tell me where you go after you've got your title and
your corpse.
McB: I write the first chapter. Or the first two or three
chapters. As far as my imagination will carry me until it
gives out.

EH: Then what?
McB: I'll outline the next few chapters ahead.

EH: Not the whole book?
McB: No.

EH: Why not?
McB: Because in mystery fiction, the reader never
knows what's going to happen next. If helps if the writer
doesn't quite know, either—if what happens is as much
a surprise to him as it is to the reader.

EH: Isn't that dangerous?
McB: If it doesn't work, you can always go back and
change it.

EH: As I understand it, then, you keep outlining as you
go along.
McB: Yes. Whenever I feel a need to move things along
in a certain direction. Which, by the way, may change
the moment the characters get there and discover
things I didn't know they'd discover.

EH: I always love that moment.
McB: Which moment?

EH: When the characters do just what the hell they want
to do.
McB: When they come alive, yes.

EH: That's when you know you've got a book. That's
when you know these aren't just words on paper.
McB: A lot of writers talk about how awful it is to be a
writer. All the suffering, all the pain. Doesn't anyone find
joy in it?

EH: I do.
McB: So do I.

EH: You once said … or we once said …
McB: We once said …

EH: … when asked which qualities we considered
essential for a writer of fiction today …
McB: Yes, I remember.

EH: We said …a head and a heart.
McB: Yes. The head to give the work direction, the heart
to give it feeling.

EH: Would you change that in any way now?
McB: I would only say please, please, please don't
forget the heart.

© Evan Hunter

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