Fiction and Bullshit: An Interview with Ace Atkins

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You can divide Ace Atkins’s literary output into four nice pie slices. First came a series of what Barry Hannah called “blues-detective” novels. Then Ace moved on to real American crimes and the people who committed them, in four richly imagined novels ranging chronologically from the 1920s to the 1950s. Lately he is operating on all cylinders at once, having taken over the phenomenally successful Spenser novels for the late Robert B. Parker while simultaneously introducing his own creation: Quinn Colson, a former Army Ranger, back from Iraq and Afghanistan, who finds himself the decent sheriff of a corrupt Mississippi county. The Forsaken, the fourth installment of the Quinn Colson saga, will appear in July. Jack Pendarvis talked to Ace in his office, which overlooks the Square in Oxford, Mississippi.

(sound of a cork)

JACK: That was the sound of a cork.

(gurgling sound of rye being poured)

JACK: Coming out of the rye bottle.

ACE: This is six-year-old rye, Smooth Ambler spirits. No, excuse me, seven-year-old.

JACK: I can’t pay you for it?

ACE: No. No, you can’t. It’s yours.

JACK: Wow. Thanks.

ACE: I think you’ve brought me a few bottles. Here you go. All right.

JACK: Okay. Well, uh…

ACE: Okay.

JACK: I’m reading The Forsaken now. Uhm… and, do… do reviewers talk about this much? The Faulkner connection? Because, I mean, it starts with a lawyer named Stevens.

ACE: Mm-hm.

JACK: Like, kind of like Gavin Stevens.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: And then you’ve got Bundrens in there, and Varners, and other Faulknerian… is that just something you do for fun?

ACE: Yeah, just for fun. It’s interesting, though, how many people don’t notice it. I think maybe only people who read Faulkner or live in Oxford notice that kind of stuff. But it’s fun to put in there, because I do think that some of these characters are the modern, uh… folks, people who you would have seen running a general store.

JACK: Yeah, like Johnny…

ACE: Like the Varners are now running the Quick Mart.

JACK: Johnny Stagg has got a lot of Snopes…

ACE: Definitely.

JACK: … to him.

ACE: Yeah, yeah.

JACK: Now, he seems like a character you love to write. I mean, he’s the bad guy in the Quinn Colson books. You obviously relish getting to write about him, right?

ACE: I think so… it’s always fun to write about the bad guys because they’re amoral and you can do what you want. I like Johnny because I think he’s a smart guy. There’s a point in one of the books where he’s talking about people who have been made very malleable by religion. And you see that Johnny can use those platitudes, as far as wearing an American flag pin…

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: And professing to be a good Christian and a deacon at his church. But he really knows the score. He really knows what he’s doing as far as using those tools to make things happen.

JACK: Right!

ACE: So he’s very Southern in that regard.

JACK: Uh, I like in the new book when he refers to a guy as “the Will Rogers of shitbirds.” Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha! I don’t remember that line. But that does sound so true. Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s great. I love the Quinn Colson books. As you know, I was worried about, uhm, when you were moving from…

ACE: Mm-hm.

JACK: … doing the period, the historical, how… How would you… What would you call that group of books?

ACE: I mean, I guess you could call them historicals, I mean, I’ve got no problem with term historicals. I usually think of historicals as being fictional events occurring in a time period, uhm, I’d call these… they’re not really true crime…

JACK: Nnnh-nnnh.

ACE: … because they’re fiction. I’d say, “based on a true story.”

JACK: Mm-hm.

ACE: That’s probably the best way to describe them.

JACK: And they all take place in the… somewhat distant… I don’t know, how… how…

ACE: I wrote a book set in the twenties about Fatty Arbuckle… in the thirties about Machine Gun Kelly… and then I did two books in the fifties, uh, one set in Tampa, in the Latin area of Tampa, and Havana in the 1950s, and I did another one set in Phenix City, Alabama.

JACK: Yeah, of course! And you’ve got the poster for The Phenix City Story on your wall here.

ACE: One of my all-time favorite movies.

JACK: And, uh, Hud and Harper posters. Why Hud and Harper? I know why Harper!

ACE: Actually what I thought about doing, I was going to frame all the Paul Newman “H” movies.

JACK: Hombre?

ACE: I’m missing Hombre. Uh, there’s Harry Frigg. There’s The Hustler

JACK: Harry Frigg???!!!!???

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: I don’t know that one.

ACE: Well…

JACK: Are you sure there’s…?

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: A movie called Harry Frigg? Are you sure that’s not a movie you saw on Cinemax late one night?

ACE: There was a lot of nudity but the guy looked like Paul Newman.

JACK: Uhm, ha ha!

ACE: Ha! Yeah, but so, no, in fact that’s why Lew Archer from the Ross MacDonald novels became Harper in the movie, because the studio executives thought Paul Newman could only do movies with an “H” in them.

JACK: Was it like a good luck thing? Or…

ACE: I guess so, yeah.

JACK: “We’re doing great with ‘H’ movies, let’s make another one.” You have another “H” movie up here, High Noon. That’s… not…

(sound of ice tinkling)

ACE: Not Paul Newman.

JACK: We were just talking about John Wayne earlier. You know, John Wayne and Howard Hawks hated High Noon. That’s where Rio Bravo comes from. Uhm, politically they found it too liberal or something.

ACE: Well, I’m sure they hated it, with all the guys who, you know, turn their back on people to turn them over to the Senate committee on, uh, you know…

JACK: Right.

ACE: … during the Red Scare.

JACK: Yeah, man, John Wayne was unapologetically, you know… Man, he hated communists.

ACE: High Noon may be… I mean, it’s definitely my favorite western and it may be one of my favorite films ever.

JACK: Mmm!

ACE: You know, that image of Will Kane throwing down that badge at the end of the film…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: And how no one would help him… That’s quintessential.

JACK: But that’s exactly what John Wayne and Howard Hawks hated… Hey! Paul Newman should have made a movie with Howard Hawks.

ACE: Yeah?

JACK: Because of the H’s! Howard Hawks’s Hud.

ACE: There would have been a lot more shooting in it.

JACK: And you’ve got the Skin Game poster.

ACE: Yeah! I think that’s a great film, one of the forgotten movies. Skin Game, coming out in 1971, was during the heat of a lot of racial tension and it’s surprising when you watch that film how carefully they discuss the issue of race. Lou Gossett is amazing in it, and it’s also a very funny movie.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: I think it’s terrific. And Garner was never better.

JACK: Garner, uh… Garner made a lot of funny westerns.

ACE: His comedic abilities are, I think, unparalleled. Just those… Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, going all the way back to Maverick.

JACK: What else do you want to talk about? I want to talk about the Quinn Colson books.

ACE: Okay!

JACK: I mean, when I mentioned the Faulkner comparison, I think it’s legitimate.

(sounds of ice being dumped into two glasses)

JACK: Not just because you put those names in there, but you’re really trying to make a…

(more ice noise, loud)

JACK: … a world there. In The Broken Places, and I’m not sure this happens in any of the books before The Broken Places, but there’s a map…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … in the front. You know, kind of like something Faulkner would… Did you draw that map?

ACE: No, no, no, God. I can’t draw. But a buddy of mine who’s a graphic artist drew it and it was certainly based on one of those many maps that Faulkner did. And it started out being a place of reference for me, because it’s a county that I’m exploring and I want to know all the different areas and the people, the connections… you know, obviously, living in Oxford, that’s something that’s sort of hard-wired to your brain and you’re trying to keep that story alive. But then I gave it to my editor and he thought it was cool and ended up putting it in the book.

JACK: Well, you know, uh… and another thing you do, you get to look at these same characters again and again and… and really explore their hist…

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: They’ve all got interesting pasts that still have an effect on them, and…

(quiet ice sounds, louder ice sounds, sound of a bottle being plunked down)

JACK: You get to explore… I feel like with every book you get to go deeper into these people and what makes them who they are. That’s one thing I love about that series.

ACE: I think these books came out of my experience writing those “true” books, and writing those true crime stories. It was very liberating being able to write stories about real people and real events because you didn’t have to put yourself into it.

JACK: Right.

ACE: And you know, we were talking earlier at lunch about all the trappings and the clichés of the private eye genre, the trappings of those hero books, where you’ve got the same type story. And what I wanted to do with these books, I wanted to be completely absent from them. I’m not one of those writers that…

JACK: Now, you’re talking about the historic…?

ACE: I’m talking about the Quinn Colson books.

JACK: Oh, okay!

ACE: That’s what I wanted to do. I did not want to write a book with an alter-ego who’s…

JACK: Yeah, BUT! I have to say… sorry to interrupt…

ACE: Sure. No, no.

JACK: That, uhm, that… I don’t know… I read ‘em and I… I see so many of your interests. I feel like there’s a lot of you in those books, just because they’re filled with stuff that we talk about when we’re having a drink. Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha! There’s certainly a lot of me in the interests and the timeframe and the pop culture references and the films… that’s all me. But as far as the characters, I mean, I don’t think I’m an ex-Army guy or whatever. I mean, that’s so far away… anyone who knows me would think it’s ludicrous. That’s just a particular type person that I know from these small communities.

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: And, let’s face it, if a guy’s going to be a sheriff, going back to westerns, the local gunfighter, the guy who’s good with a gun, well, he was probably in the army. It’s that simple. There’s not anything more complex about it. But it’s not me, it’s not my alter-ego. Hopefully that’s far beyond me as a writer. But! My interests as far as 1970s films, and, you know, Burt Reynolds movies, and…

JACK: Cigars?

ACE: Cigars.

JACK: He does smoke… That’s one…

ACE: That is true.

JACK: That’s one characteristic that you guys have in common.

(a bunch of ice noises)

ACE: I think that comes about because I’m often having one while I’m writing. I’m also drinking a lot of coffee. So that’s why.

JACK: That’s funny because, uhm… you know…

(tinkling ice)

JACK: I feel bad because I’m such a bad writer that if it’s cold…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: … then my characters are cold. So I can’t really, ha ha ha! If I’m sweating, my characters start sweating.

ACE: No, no, I know what you mean, because there’s a point when I’m writing a book and it’s supposed to be a novel set in the summer and I’m writing it in December.

JACK: Mm. Ha!

ACE: It’s really hard, you know.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

ACE: The trees don’t have any leaves on them, and it’s a gray day… I think it just bleeds into your subconscious, especially if you’re writing from a personal place.

JACK: Well, that’s a relief. Uhm… I haven’t read any of the Parker… the, uhm, Spenser novels, because I feel like I should read some Robert Parker first. I’ve never read any Robert Parker.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: Now, you got me to read some John D. McDonald for the first time recently.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: I’ve read two of them now and I must say… they were a lot alike. Ha ha ha ha!

ACE: What did you read? You read The Deep Blue Goodbye

JACK: I read, no, no, I didn’t read that one. Megan [Abbott] read that one.

ACE: Okay.

JACK: I read The Turquoise Lament.

ACE: Yeah?

JACK: And then I, uh, I read, uh… Bright Orange for the Shroud.

ACE: That’s a good one, that’s one of my favorite ones.

JACK: It was good… uhm…

ACE: Is that the one where his buddy shows up to The Busted Flush and he’s all messed up?

JACK: Yeah, he’s all… he’s starved…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: He’s literally starving to death because of a bad woman.

ACE: Yeah… yeah. We’ve been there.

JACK: They put him back on his feet, and…

ACE: Well, you can see: There’s my complete John D. … I inherited those. One of my best friends from high school, his father was an avid John D. MacDonald fan and got me to read him. I think John D. had become, at one point, largely out of print. And he wrote, I mean, God knows. Eighty books? Something like that… and I have all of them, but I really mean all of them… Down to… I’ll find it, wait. He wrote a novelization of a Judy Garland movie.

JACK: WHAT????!!!!????

ACE: Yep. Called [Ace finds the book on his shelf] I Could Go On Singing.

JACK: Wow, a novelization of a Judy Garland… have you read it?

ACE: I have not. You’re welcome to read it.

JACK: Uhm, I don’t want to take it out of the collection.

ACE: I’m a real advocate of John D. MacDonald, especially for younger readers. Younger readers, people in their twenties, I find are much less snobbish about crime fiction. I find that hipster readers are very cool and very hip with… obviously, they’re hipsters.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But getting beyond Chandler and Hammett… you know, John D. MacDonald has been largely ignored. People have forgotten about him.

JACK: You know, Ross MacDonald… anybody named MacDonald…

ACE: I think he’s had a better afterlife.

JACK: Yeah, maybe.

ACE: And he’s not… I love Ross MacDonald, the books are obviously psychologically complex and wonderful, and the family drama and that stuff… but as far as pure fun, enjoyment, if I’m sitting having a cocktail, reading a book at night, John D. MacDonald to me is as good as it gets.

JACK: Yeah, but do you like reading all about how… “Now I have to get the bilge off of the…”

ACE: Yeah!

JACK: I guess that is kind of fun. It is good.

ACE: Yeah, I like it.

JACK: Me, too. I’m sorry I was dismissive. It’s good because… uh… uhm… I don’t know, but it feels grounded, it feels real, like you’re in a real place.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And, uh… I think there’s a lot of that in the Quinn Colson novels. Sorry I keep talking about Quinn Colson!

ACE: No, no!

JACK: But I just love those books so much.

ACE: It’s kind of what’s on my mind right now. I’ve got to get on a synopsis and kind of an overall story and start writing the next book. We talked about the trappings and clichés, hopefully those books go beyond that with the family connections…

JACK: Oh, yeah!

ACE: … and histories.

JACK: I like the way, uh, the… the… plot will…

(ice sound; glass on table)

JACK: … be put on pause for a moment…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … so we can get these quiet family dinners…

ACE: Right. I…

JACK: The relationships are all so interesting between Quinn and his sister and his mother and uh… that absent… father… What were you going to say? That you’d like to write a book about them where there’s no crime? Ha ha!

ACE: I think you could. I think you could take out the crime element and you could easily do a family drama, a history of the town…

JACK: There’s a lot of 70s stuff in the new book.

ACE: Yeah. And it gets more so as the book goes on, you’ll see, bringing back a lot of the major players from that time. But again, people who try to pigeonhole crime books are often the ones who don’t read them. Because you can do whatever you want to. Limiting a crime book to me… I don’t want to get on that tangent, but it’s the same as the people who would like to limit the western…

JACK: Go ahead and get on a tangent!

ACE: No, but you know, it’s like… you can do… think of all the wonderful novels. The Ox-Bow Incident.

JACK: Oh my gosh.

ACE: That was a really heavy draw for me in this next book.

JACK: In The Forsaken? Oh yeah, I can totally see that. Of course. Uhm…

(ice; glass)

ACE: Which is a terrific film, too. Henry Fonda…

JACK: You like your westerns liberal! Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha! I do! I guess so, I never thought about it like that.

JACK: That just shows you right there, there is a huge variety in film westerns. I’m not even talking about the revisionist westerns either.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … but in the classic western era. In fact, I often think there’s a similarity in westerns and noir.

ACE: So many of those great western writers who we really love wrote noir.

JACK: Like Elmore Leonard, who…

ACE: That’s it.

JACK: You dedicate this new book to Elmore Leonard and Tom Laughlin. Why would you do that? I thought that was a very nice gesture.

ACE: Well, they both…

(ice)

ACE: Well, I had known Elmore, he was a hero of mine for a long time. I admired his work greatly and I knew him personally, got to spend some time with him and we kept in touch over the years, and he was, to me, I think, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and I was fortunate to know him. I did not know Tom, but I loved those Billy Jack movies.

JACK: Man, Billy Jack!

ACE: And they both… what happened was that they both died during the writing of this book. And I think actually you and I had been watching Billy Jack during that time or whatever… and there’s a lot of Billy Jack in Quinn Colson. There’s a lot, you know. That whole story, once again going back to the western, the simplicity of a man trying to root out corruption in his community, is all very Billy Jack. Those films kind of unravel at a point…

JACK: Oh. Well… We watched that three-hour The Trial of Billy Jack, which… it had some good stuff in it, but they just…

ACE: Aside from the hapkido demonstration, there’s not a lot. But there’s a… You can tell that the people who are making them are having a lot of fun. And there’s a lot of… uh… uh…

JACK: I don’t know if I’d call it… fun. They’re sobbing a lot.

ACE: They are sobbing a lot.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But I think they’re committed. There’s a commitment.

JACK: Yeah, there’s a commitment, that’s a good way to put it.

ACE: They really cared about that character.

JACK: I don’t know if Tom Laughlin seems like the kind of guy who ever had a lot of fun, really. He’s pretty intense!

ACE: Wasn’t there something you told me you had come across? There was something in the obit… Someone was talking to his daughter, who said that’s who he was. He was Billy Jack.

JACK: Right. An intense guy, man! Another kind of…

(ice swirling around as a glass is placed on the desk)

JACK: … super liberal western, when you think about it.

ACE: It is!

JACK: We’ve… we’ve discovered something very interesting about your love of liberal westerns. When you talk about taking yourself out of the books, that’s a fascinating thing to say. That must be especially true for the Spenser books, right? Is that liberating, to feel like… or is it a burden in a way? I don’t mean a burden.

ACE: It’s funny. Although I did not create Spenser, it is much easier for me to understand that character…

(ice crunching around)

ACE: and to get into writing a Spenser book…

(ice going into a glass)

ACE: Spenser is a lot more like me personally.

JACK: How so?

ACE: Well, let’s see. He likes to drink. He likes beer. He likes his dog. He has, you know, he kind of has the same worldview…

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: Going back to views on social issues… He hates people who abuse their power… it’s very much what I was drawn to as a newspaper reporter. Ferreting out the truth, exposing people, he’s very committed to that. He also has, I think, a somewhat humorous view of the world, likes good food… You know, I understand Spenser. In fact, I think reading him as a young man kind of shaped who I was.

JACK: Mmm!

ACE: Then when I write Quinn, I know his world, I know people like him, but we’re such separate people.

JACK: He’s pretty stoic.

ACE: We’re talking about the westerns, we keep on going back to that, but of course that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to do westerns set in Mississippi, and something really lean and spare, going back to Randolph Scott…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: Gary Cooper…

JACK: Yeah, yeah!

ACE: Those laconic western heroes, that’s who I wanted to write about. And that’s not me. I like to talk. Ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha!

ACE: I’m not a man of few words by… by any stretch.

JACK: Quinn’s got such a weary oldness about him, even though he’s a young man.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: So do you think about his chronological age at all while you’re writing?

ACE: Quinn has a definite timeline that I’m thinking of. He’s very interesting to me because he’s… Quinn is exactly ten years younger than I am.

JACK: Mm!

ACE: And Spenser I always think of as being ten years older than I am.

JACK: Hmm!

ACE: And so they’re people who are at very different places in their lives. Quinn is somewhat based on a guy who is a young ranger lieutenant who I did extensive interviews with before I started writing. So there’s parts where you’ll hear Quinn talking about stuff that happened in Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s not just me talking out of my ass about something I read in the New York Times, that’s something that he actually told me about, something he had been a part of and how it made him feel. This came back almost to journalism, creating this character. Also, these guys who have come through a truly life-and-death experience have a gallows humor because that’s what gets them through things. That’s what I learned from this guy.

You talk about being an old man. You got this guy eighteen, nineteen, going in, you know, right around 9/11, and all of a sudden he’s out, you know, he’s been in war for ten years, I mean, and especially with what he does, being a U.S. Army Ranger, those guys are deployed, deployed, deployed, they’ll have like thirteen deployments, I mean where he’s like, not just sitting playing cards in the desert but they’re out doing these really intense missions. I mean, thirty years old, you’re going to be an old man. Again it goes back to the western. A lot of figures in the western were Civil War veterans…

JACK: Sure! And of course in a lot of classic noir it’s a lot of World War II veterans.

ACE: Absolutely.

JACK: Coming back… You know, William Bendix in The Blue Dahlia.

ACE: Sure.

JACK: With a plate in his head!

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: And Chandler, who wrote the screenplay, wanted to make him the killer, even. But that was just too dark for the studios at the time.

ACE: Hammett, he didn’t write after World War II.

JACK: He was…?

ACE: Yeah. World War I and World War II.

(cork coming out of a bottle)

JACK: He was too sick to be in World War…

ACE: No, he was in World War II, he worked for a newspaper in the Aleutians.

JACK: I didn’t know that!

ACE: Yeah, he wanted to…

(pouring sounds)

JACK: I kind of thought he was dead already.

ACE: No, he never wrote after that. He actually wrote at the base, but he was, uh… he wanted to be involved.

JACK: Hmm! Interesting. We’ve talked about Spenser a little bit, we’ve talked about Quinn Colson and the “based on a true story” books, but we haven’t talked about that first series. You won’t remember this at all, but the first time I bought some of your books I bought Wicked City, which I’ve taught in classes—back when I used to teach—many times. And I bought Dirty South. And you… for some reason you said “Don’t read…”

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You told me not to read Dirty South! Do you remember why? I haven’t read it yet! Ha ha, I felt nervous after that.

ACE: I wrote four books essentially when I was in my twenties. Dirty South I guess I wrote when I was in my early thirties. I was doing a series character, and that kind of thing, and I really learned what not to do.

JACK: Now you’re making me want to read ‘em!

ACE: Yeah… there’s so many things in those books that… it… I think there are some parts of them that I… like.

JACK: What did you learn from writing those books?

ACE: Going back to taking yourself out of the character. There’s a part that’s ego. I think what I was doing essentially, I was writing books where I thought there were certain things that had to happen in those novels because of what I was reading at the time. I was writing a fictional world, a hero-driven book, an alter-ego character. Look. The books were from HarperCollins and St. Martin’s Press and they did well. But! There was a stylistic element, something that read like fiction, and that’s what I try totally not to do now. I try to quit writing fiction and bullshit.

JACK: You were coming out of being a newspaperman, so at first did you want to try doing something… really different? And that’s why you were writing at such a heightened…

ACE: No, I was writing those books as I was working as a newspaper reporter. I was still a very young reporter when that first book came out. So I was really still adhering to those things I thought needed to be in that book, like the character carrying a gun all the time. It’s kind of ridiculous. I wouldn’t carry a gun. The more you know about playing with the form in a way that’s interesting… You know, we’ve often talked about The Rockford Files.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: And I love the fact that Jim Rockford never carries a gun. He keeps his gun in…

JACK: You know, he’s always walking in that trailer and…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: And somebody was waiting inside waiting to beat the hell out of him.

ACE: Maybe he should have carried a gun, you know?

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But those novels read to me very much like fiction, and they felt like something that I thought I needed to mirror from books that were being published at that time.

JACK: So who were you tying to imitate when you were first starting out?

ACE: Mmm… I hate to name any names.

JACK: But you’re not saying they’re bad, you’re just saying that you…

ACE: Also, my characters were so over-the-top… And I was trying to be funny…

JACK: I think there’s an amazing amount of humor in the Quinn Colson novels. In fact, in the one I’m reading now, even though I could tell that some really horrible shit was about to happen…

ACE: Right…

JACK: I was laughing on the second page. I mean, just a little aside about one character’s father: he wouldn’t even laugh when the animals crapped on Johnny Carson’s desk.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: That’s a great detail!

ACE: Hopefully those asides come from real people, real things.

JACK: Yeah, because life has a lot of humor in it.

ACE: That’s why I hate books that are totally dark and serious. The writer misses the humor in the world, and I feel those books are also totally inauthentic.

JACK: Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this, but I didn’t like that movie Se7en because it was so ponderous. Gwyneth Paltrow’s head was in the box.

ACE: Now that part was funny.

(ice, ice, ice)

JACK: I hate to even bring this topic up, but do you think there’s something about Southern writing? Because even in the darkest Faulkner there’ll be humor… or Truman Capote… I don’t know if there’s any humor in In Cold Blood. You know I’ve never read In Cold Blood? I’ve always been too nervous to read it.

ACE: Yeah, there’s not a lot of humor. Ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But it’s so authentic, obviously. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life. It really influenced me in the kinds of books I wanted to write.

JACK: Oh, really? Interesting!

(cork squeak)

JACK: I don’t know if you remember this, but you gave me a copy of Blue City by Ross MacDonald, which is not one of the Archer books. It’s more… hard… hardboiled, I guess.

ACE: It is the hardest boiled.

JACK: I was happy about bringing books like that into the classroom. That’s about the only good I did. Ha! So tell me about the movie version of Blue City.

ACE: Ha ha ha! With Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha! But was that based on…

ACE: Yeah, it was. I’m sure Ross MacDonald saw it.

JACK: Was he alive when that came out?

ACE: Yeah. I think he died shortly thereafter.

JACK: It’s probably what killed him.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha! I didn’t want to make the connection. It’s supposed to be this bleak, anonymous noir town, no particular time, no particular place…

JACK: Sure, sure…

ACE: But for some reason they decided to set the movie in the Florida Keys, and Judd Nelson is in it, and I remember that he rides around on his motorcycle with his basketball.

JACK: Ha ha! Which I don’t recall from the novel. Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: The whole film I remember he had this basketball with him.

JACK: Was it his friend? Like in Castaway?

ACE: They brightened that world up considerably. Ally Sheedy was a cocktail waitress, not a prostitute.

JACK: Hmm! I used to talk to the late William Gay about Ross MacDonald. He was the biggest Ross MacDonald fan I ever met.

ACE: William and I got to be pals.

JACK: Is that right?

ACE: Yeah, we met at a writer’s conference in Florida. And we had met a few times before, but we were sitting down at you know, some poolside party that was horrendous and we ended up talking about John D. MacDonald.

JACK: Hmm!

ACE: And one of the remarkable things about William Gay, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of books. He had a really nasty divorce and he said that John D. MacDonald helped him get through that. And he also said that he loved… we were talking at one point about All the King’s Men and he said that it was more hardboiled than Chandler. And he’s right on!

JACK: Hal Needham comes up a lot in the Quinn Colson books because Quinn’s dad goes out to Hollywood to be a stuntman.

ACE: Yeah, that part of my childhood was a really fun part for me. Being from Alabama, in exile from Alabama as a kid. I was born there, and my family’s all from Alabama from way, way back, but then because of my father’s job we moved everywhere… I just vividly remember that part of the 70s when the South was getting to be cool again. And the South was, of course, such a dark, ominous place in the 60s, and in the 70s there was a cloud that had lifted and a New South was starting to emerge.

JACK: You know Jay Watson, don’t you?

ACE: Yeah, sure.

JACK: The Faulkner scholar here. He’s written a really interesting article about Sharkey’s Machine. That’s kind of a New South movie, although it’s very dark.

ACE: It’s an ugly film, too. And you see what they did, which was interesting, and it wasn’t the intention, it was just the way it was, because they shot the damn film there, but, you know… Atlanta, they basically razed almost all of downtown Atlanta.

JACK: Yeah.

ACE: You look at Sharkey’s Machine, all you see is that Peachtree Towers building coming up. And the flat expanse of…

JACK: Well, he writes about that a lot in the article, that building.

ACE: Yeah, they push a man out of it.

JACK: They do! Now, did Burt Reynolds direct that movie, or am I crazy? He directed a couple of… he directed The End. A classic, uh, I don’t mean the movie is a classic, I mean a classic situation. “You’ve only got six months to live.”

ACE: I just remember the poster. Dom Deluise with a gun to his head.

JACK: Well, you know.

ACE: High comedy. But yeah, I think about that time period, coming back to the South, everyone had CB radios.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: Everyone’s wearing Frye boots, and the South is like a cool place…

JACK: Frye boots?

ACE: F-R-Y-E. Everyone’s wearing cowboy jeans, all the trucker movies are coming out, Jimmy Carter’s president. Carter’s coming out of the South, a new breed of guy.

JACK: There was a TV show, Movin’ On. Do you remember that TV show?

ACE: No, but we’ve talked about it. You said it was Claude Akins.

JACK: Claude Akins and Frank Converse truckin’ across the country. They shot an episode in my hometown of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, I was in seventh grade, I was 12 years old, that would have been… uh… ’75? And we all… it was Catholic school, right on the Bayou.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: My friend Henry Barnes got in trouble with the nuns because somebody hit a softball into the Bayou and he dove in to get it. He just really wanted to dive.

ACE: Ha ha!

JACK: You know, that was an excuse.

ACE: Sure.

JACK: The nun was right! But, uh, we were out on the sidewalk watching the truck. We were like, “Yay!” It was just a truck. I mean, it was just somebody driving that truck. But we cheered for the truck.

ACE: We just recently watched Smokey and the Bandit, and that image of the South in the 1970s, I just have such an affinity for that time.

JACK: You mentioned your father’s job and moving around. Now, what was your father’s job?

ACE: He was a professional football coach. So we lived all over the country. And he was a guy who came out of a place named Lamar County, Alabama.

JACK: There are some connections with your family in Phenix City.

ACE: Yeah, that’s where my mother’s family… my other grandfather was from a place named Alexander City, Alabama, where he was working for the highway department and he was responsible for… basically… uh, he was a bag man for the ex-governor, Big Jim Folsom.

JACK: A fascinating character.

ACE: A hell of an interesting guy. He was kind of like Alabama’s Huey Long.

JACK: Much more progressive than George Wallace. I mean, who isn’t?

ACE: He was a big drinker, a womanizer, got himself into trouble. But he was six foot eight, three hundred and something pounds, called himself a friend to the little man.

JACK: Do you want to talk about football at all?

ACE: …Nnnnnnnno.

JACK: Okay, me either.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s good.

ACE: I don’t watch football anymore. That’s why I don’t live in Alabama. That’s really pretty much all… and you know this… all people talk about. It’s all they talk about!

JACK: Even though I didn’t know a damn thing about football I wrote my fourth grade book report… I think it was fourth grade…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: On who do you think? Who do you think?

ACE: Bear Bryant.

JACK: Yes! I read his autobiography and wrote a book report about it. My fourth grade teacher Miss Matthews loved the Miami Dolphins.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: This was the Larry Csonka era.

ACE: He was the Burt Reynolds of the NFL.

JACK: He was! And I think her sister was a cheerleader maybe?

ACE: Really!

JACK: For the Miami Dolphins? I might be making that up.

ACE: In my family, honestly, I had no choice.

JACK: I remember once when you and I went to the movies, I think it was The Town, that Ben Affleck film…

ACE: Right…

JACK: No, it can’t have been that! It must have been some other, more wimpy movie, because the preview was for a high school comedy…?

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: Or a romantic angst-filled would-be John Hughes thing…

ACE: Right…

JACK: And you were mad because they made the football player be…

ACE: The bad guy?

JACK: A jerk, yeah.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You said, “They always do that. They always make the high school football player be a jerk.”

ACE: Yeah… well, they… they often can be. I was always more interested in… When I was in high school I couldn’t wait for football practice to be over or football games, I really hated it. It was kind of like part of my job, I had to do it.

But there was a station that was out of Columbus, Georgia, and they were airing these movies that were from the sixties, because I think they had just entered that twenty-year period where it was sort of becoming public domain, and so they would show all these films. I’d watch To Sir With Love, Duel at Diablo, Steve McQueen, that was my film education. I had this book. What was it called? Movies on TV. They would do a brand new edition every year.

JACK: Yeah, yeah, Leonard Maltin had that thing and I was thinking I feel sorry for him because now we have the internet.

ACE: But before the internet, that was a hell of a great thing. And a lot of spy movies, a lot of spy spoofs, so that to me… I couldn’t wait. And there were so many films that were not on VHS.

JACK: Now your kids, if they wanted to, couldn’t they just watch 40 hours of Teen Titans Go!?

ACE: Oh, sure!

JACK: You like that show, I’m not putting that show down.

ACE: I adore that show. But now TV is nonstop and it’s tailor-made to your taste.

JACK: Mm-hm.

ACE: But back then, you’d have to really hunt. I remember one time I couldn’t find The Cincinnati Kid and I had always wanted to watch The Cincinnati Kid, because what’s not to like? It’s Steve McQueen.

JACK: It’s Ann-Margret AND Tuesday Weld! In one movie!

ACE: And you’d see it just show up out of Columbus, Friday night…

JACK: Yeah, you’d have to stay up late. I remember once we had to evacuate because of a hurricane. We went to Birmingham and I was excited because one of the local Birmingham stations was showing Sabrina, the Billy Wilder movie. And I’d never seen it. I remember just being thrilled that this hurricane had sent us to Birmingham so I could watch Sabrina.

ACE: Strangely enough, I think it was football that brought me to this. There was this guy, he actually used to be the head coach at the University of Alabama, his name was Bill Curry. And he was also the coach at Georgia Tech, so when I was a kid living in Atlanta, his son was a really good friend of mine. And I remember being about 13 years old and being over at their house and they had Vertigo on VHS.

JACK: Mmmm!

ACE: And I remember thinking, “Jesus, why are we watching this old movie?” And then to see, for VHS, a fairly nice print of Vertigo, and the look and everything… I’d never seen anything like it.

JACK: That’s one of the most devastating endings of any movie…

ACE: Ha ha ha! Maybe that’s what shaped my psyche. Thirteen years old, I had to see more. It just blew me away. I was one of these poor idiots who invested in a great collection. These bookshelves in my office now were all filled with VHS. And it’s all turned to shit. But there are a lot of movies that were only ever available on VHS. The original cut of one of my top five all-time movies, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I like it better than The Wild Bunch. You know why I like it better than Wild Bunch? Because it’s a lot funnier.

JACK: I don’t like him shooting chickens at the beginning. You know, Sam Peckinpah has so much animal cruelty in his movies. Even in a comedy like Ballad of Cable Hogue he shoots a lizard at the beginning.

ACE: Or at the beginning of The Wild Bunch, the burning scorpions.

JACK: About two or three days before we got married, they had re-released The Wild Bunch on the big screen. Theresa and I…

ACE: Did you see it in Atlanta?

JACK: Yeah, at the Phipps Plaza…

ACE: I was there.

JACK: Hey, that is so weird!

ACE: We could have been at the same movie at the same time.

JACK: It was opening day, I’m sure.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: So guess what happened. Theresa’s already tense because of the wedding stuff, it’s crazy…

ACE: Sure…

JACK: And so we get in there…

(ice rattling)

JACK: First they show the horrible torturing scorpions with ants scene.

ACE: Had she seen it before?

JACK: No.

(cork squeaks)

JACK: Now she teaches it every semester, that’s the funny part of this story. She loves it now. But, uh, at the time… the first line of the movie, of course, is, “If they move, kill ‘em.”

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And Theresa said, “I’m not watching this.” And she got up and left the movie theater, and I was like, “Oh, dammit!” So I didn’t get to see it on the big screen.

ACE: I saw The Wild Bunch there, I saw Rear Window there. I was at home and unemployed. I had graduated college in ’94 and I was looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. So I went to a lot of movies.

JACK: I bet we were in movie theaters together all the time and never even knew it. That’s my biggest complaint, maybe my only complaint, about Oxford: the lack of that kind of movie theater.

ACE: We could use one. I just back from Austin and there’s a place called the Alamo Draft House. I went to go see Big Trouble in Little China in Austin and it was terrific. You know, a packed house, everybody was there, laughing, and they do it every week. You’re not just watching Casablanca, you’re watching gems from the eighties and fun stuff.

JACK: When Theresa was an undergrad, she was a projectionist at the theater on campus and they would order whatever they wanted. The Crimson Kimono, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls… I went to see the Charles Bronson Machine Gun Kelly, directed by Roger Corman, which wasn’t very good, and nothing like the real story, which is what you wrote about. I told you about this before, but my friend Ward and I wrote a screenplay about Machine Gun Kelly called Bullethead, and it was so much like your novel Infamous. We took the same angle on it, which is that his wife was the brains.

ACE: I think that’s the turnoff for a lot of people who want to do something about Machine Gun Kelly. He was a fairly nice guy.

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: He really was not that ambitious. He was kind of lazy. Most people who want to write, like, a Dillinger film are turned off by that. But that’s what makes it great.

JACK: There’s supposed to be a great Don Siegel movie starring Mickey Rooney in an unhinged performance as Baby Face Nelson. That’s unavailable.

ACE: This is like a real vaulted movie.

JACK: I know you have ways of getting some of these obscure movies.

ACE: I’ll see, but that’s a famously rare film. The one thing that would make Oxford better is if we had a film series where you weren’t sitting in a dank hallway on campus, but a place you could get a cocktail, sit down, like the Lyric.

JACK: I think they showed Baby Face there, the Barbara Stanwyck film, when Megan came here to read from Bury Me Deep.

ACE: Yep. That’s it. Why don’t we try to facilitate that?

JACK: I’m… too tired.

ACE: Yeah, me too.

ACE ANDJACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Well, this got off of literature, but so what? I like that you use “fiction” as a bad word. That’s interesting to me.

ACE: Well, completely off track… the thing that I try to do, whether I succeed or fail is not up to me, is write authentically. If I could write a story that’s authentic, and the characters are authentic, and the world is authentic, then I’ve done my job. My first four books, that’s what I don’t like about them. They’re inauthentic books.

JACK: But I have to say that your characters, even now, speak in lines that we wish we could think of to say. They’re not mumbling the way we do in real life. They say things in an interesting and memorable way. So, you’re still practicing the craft.

ACE: Yeah, but the biggest compliment I get is when somebody says, “I know those people.”

JACK: Yeah, sure!

ACE: Those people inhabit our world, those are real people. Those first four books that I wrote, they’re very booky kind of books.

JACK: Hmm.

ACE: There are a lot of “characters” in them. And that’s my aspiration: not to write characters but to write real people. It’s more interesting to me to write about family connections and personal histories than just to write about the continuation of a hero. The continuation of a hero, you know, it’s a very rare author who pulls it off book after book. John D. MacDonald could do it, Robert B. Parker could do it. They can be drinking a beer or having lunch, it’s just exciting to be with those characters.

JACK: Mm-hm, and comforting too. Because you know Travis McGee is going to take care of everything.

ACE: I probably couldn’t tell you anything about the inner workings of the con in Bright Orange for the Shroud, but you think about the conversations he had with Meyer while they’re sitting on The Busted Flush drinking Plymouth gin…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: I mean, I don’t know, that’s real to me, it’s absolutely real.

JACK: But he doesn’t… he’s not like Quinn Colson, though. We don’t get deeper into Travis McGee with every book. We’re accessing Travis McGee on the same basic level. Unless I’m wrong! I’ve only read two of them. But we know everything we need to know about him by reading one book. He’s just in a different adventure. Is that true? I mean, I don’t know.

ACE: The only thing we know is how the person acts in real time in the real world of what they’re doing. And Travis McGee is just so wholly realized, he’s like a buddy. You just know him completely. You know how he’s going to react in certain situations and what he’s going to do. His personality is so fully formed. I don’t care what he did as a child. The same with Ross MacDonald. We don’t know anything about Archer. We know he was divorced, we know he was in World War II. I think the most background we ever hear from that is one time he talked about the smell of the flamethrowers in the South Pacific. That’s like one line in 20 books that we know about him.

JACK: Ha ha!

ACE: And that’s it! But I respect that.

JACK: With Chandler, with Philip Marlowe, uh, one thing I think is funny, there was that pamphlet written that suggested Marlowe might be gay…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And so immediately in The Long Goodbye he has sex with two women.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: For the first time in any of the books, you know.

ACE: And the truth of it, you know, is that there were a million of those books being written at that time period, and the reason that he didn’t have him bedding down every woman that he met is because it was a cliché. And that’s why he wasn’t doing it. But, uhm, you know… Chandler is the high mark for everybody who writes hero books.

JACK: I’m always trying to talk you into becoming a private detective. You have no interest in that at all? I mean, you’ve got the research capabilities.

ACE: Ha ha ha! It’s only time. If I had more time I’d be a private eye.

JACK: Then just stop writing books!

ACE: Let’s do it. We don’t need a license.

JACK: You don’t need a license here?

ACE: Not in Mississippi.

JACK: Wow. What are we waiting for? I just want to be like Archie Goodwin, is that his name? And you can be like Nero Wolfe.

ACE: And just eat.

JACK: Just eat and sit in your office and I’ll go out and, you know, rough up people.

ACE: Well, we certainly live in a town where… I think there’s about 7,000 attorneys here. And there’s probably zero private eyes.

JACK: No, I found a… a business card for a private eye on the ground here one day. It was called… it had a dragon…

ACE: Ha ha!

JACK: I can’t remember what their name was but the logo was a coiled dragon. And Megan suggested to me, I don’t know if you know this or not, that you should be mayor of this town. Yeah. You have any interest in that? And then I could also be like John Cusack to your Al Pacino in City Hall.

ACE: Or like the character in The Glass Key.

JACK: That’s a very good rye. Smooth Ambler Old Scout.

ACE: It has a horse on the label. You know it’s got to be good.

JACK: A lonesome rider.

ACE: Nice, nice. All right, so what’s the birthday party you have to attend?

JACK: Beth Ann, Beth Ann Fennelly.

ACE: Oh! Okay! All right. How old is Beth Ann this year?

JACK: I don’t know! Nor, as a gentleman, would I say or guess. But she looks to be a sparkling, you know, sparkling, creamy-skinned youth. Wouldn’t you agree?

ACE: I do, absolutely. I totally agree.

JACK: She’s, uh…

ACE: Have you seen, uh… have you seen X-Men?

JACK: Mn-nnh. Have you?

ACE: No.

JACK: Theresa wants to go and I don’t want to go, so why don’t you and Theresa go?

ACE: Okay, I’ll go with Theresa! Why don’t you want to see it?

JACK: I’m kind of up to the teeth with superheroes right now.

ACE: Well…

JACK: I’m kind of tired of it.

ACE: I’m super excited about the new Star Wars movie.

JACK: Mmph. Wha… I don’t even… I was excited when I saw the FIRST Star Wars movie. I was in the theater and the first shot of that giant ship going over just blew my poor young mind.

ACE: I think J.J. Abrams is going to do an excellent job. He did everything right. First of all, he hired Lawrence Kasdan to write the screenplay.

JACK: Mmph.

ACE: And you know, Lawrence Kasdan, his currency in Hollywood was probably not that high. But he wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was the script doctor on Empire and Return of the Jedi.

JACK: You know, Leigh Brackett wrote Empire.

ACE: Well…

JACK: … who also wrote The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep…

ACE: And El Dorado.

JACK: Barry Hannah used to teach one of her novels.

ACE: You know, I have never read a Leigh Brackett novel.

JACK: Me either. I have one, but it’s on the shelf. One reason I taught the hardboiled books is because Barry used to do it and I thought after Barry passed away… I wondered whether anybody would keep that up.

ACE: I talked Barry into… that was a conversation that Barry and I had. And he was talking about all the guys he really admired and I said, “Why don’t you teach a class in that?”

JACK: Oh, really!

ACE: And he said, “Interesting.” And that’s what came out of it. He actually… we talked about what the title would be for the class. One of the last conversations I had with Barry, he was talking up Charles Willeford. And this was the last week he was alive. He called Charles Willeford a personal hero. Charles Willeford and Jonathan Winters.

JACK: Yeah, and Richard Pryor. Barry knew the value of humor.

ACE: Jonathan Winters did what every writer would like to do. Maybe it was on Jack Paar? They’d give him objects, here’s this hat. Who are you? And he would become that instantly.

JACK: On the downside, we have him to blame for Robin Williams. Ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You know.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: Bicentennial Man.

ACE: Was he ever funny?

JACK: Well, yeah. Mork and Mindy was terrible. It was… execrable. Execrable? Is that a word?

ACE: The last season? When they were on cocaine?

JACK: The whole… there was some horrible television station that was rerunning Mork and Mindy, which I watched every week when I was kid, but…

ACE: Does it hold up?

JACK: WHAT???!!!??? Lord no.

ACE: Ha ha ha!

JACK: Hold up?

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: NO! It’s garbage. I’d like to watch film of seagulls at a garbage dump better than that.

ACE: So you’re not going to see the Mrs. Doubtfire sequel? Tell Theresa I will definitely go see X-Men with her.

JACK: She’ll be very excited. She was sad…

ACE: She’ll be X-cited!

JACK: Yes! All right. I guess I should… what time is it?

ACE: It’s 4:30.

JACK: Uh… wanna smoke these SEE-gars?

ACE: Yeah, sure, why not?

JACK: I didn’t mean to pronounce it that way, but I…

ACE: No, let’s do it.

JACK: It’s my country coming out.

ACE: Let’s do it.

JACK: Uh…

ACE: Yeah, Angela has granted my afternoon off.

JACK: All right, let’s smoke some cigars!

ACE: Yeah, I want to actually… it’s interesting, because I want to pick your brain a little bit.

JACK: Okay.

ACE: I’m going to tell you what the next book is about.

JACK: I’m going to turn the recorder off so that the world at large will not know.

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