by Win McCormack and Anne Mendel
Q: Do you come from a left-wing family?
Q: You weren’t a red diaper baby?
A: No, I wasn't.
Q: Were you a rebel, then?
A: No. My parents were Stevensonian liberals. It was more like the classic case of the liberal parents and radical offspring in Kenneth Kenniston's book The Young Radicals. Dyanne's family was a bit more radical, but not much.
Q: Where did you grow up? In Southern California?
A: That's one of the things people are usually surprised at, that I don't come from Southern California. I'm actually a New York suburban kid. But that’s not very surprising if you know the history of most California detective writers. Ross Macdonald is a Canadian. Raymond Chandler was an Englishman. Dashiel Hammett came from Maryland. They all came here from other places and made it their home.
Q: And you came here from New York?
A: I grew up in Manhattan, which I loved, until the tenth grade, when my parents moved to Scarsdale. I went to Scarsdale High School for three years, which were the three most miserable years of my life. I felt like a city kid in the rich suburbs and didn't know how to deal with it. I really hated it. Then I spent seven years in Ivy League schools, four at Dartmouth and three at the Yale School of Drama, all of which I liked.
Q: You studied English?A: I studied English at Dartmouth and playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. That's where I met Dyanne. We were sitting opposite each other in playwriting class. I haven't written a play since then.
Q: Did you come out to Southern California with the intention of becoming a detective writer?
A: No, I came out here basically because Dyanne was from here, but also I like the area and I like the movie business. I'm amused and seduced by the movie business. “Like” is probably not a good word. “Amused” and “seduced" are better.
We first came out in June '67, and spent about a year here. I had written a novel called Heir, which was published by MacMillan in ‘68, and on the strength of that I got a couple of screenwriting assignments and made enough money to go to Europe for a year and try to write another novel.
Q: What happened to that one?
A: Well, that’s a funny story. I was going to write about the deserters. This was in ‘68. We went to Sweden for a month and I met a couple of deserters and then we rented a house in Spain and went there. I sat down to write the novel and I couldn't do it. I didn't know how to write yet. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. The first one, Heir, was lucky – it came out of experiences I was really in touch with, but – now I wanted to write a novel about something I had merely seen and observed and I didn’t have the technical expertise to do it. I didn’t know much about construction or anything. I felt very sorry for myself and made life extremely unpleasant for myself, my wife and our one little child at the time.
It was a very strange experience all around. We were renting the house of Ronald Fraser, the editor of the New Left Review. I asked him – because that was an English publication, the New Left Review – how come he owned a house in Spain, and he said it was because it enabled him to bring interesting contraband books into Europe. A very, very interesting rationalization. Anyway, with this house he had three servants, because he had to keep up the house, right? The price to us was two hundred and fifty dollars a month, including the servants, which seemed like a pretty good deal at the time, but we didn't know how to relate to servants. I mean, we didn't like having servants and also we spoke Spanish which was actually a handicap because if you speak their language then you have to get involved with their lives and they don't know how to deal with foreigners getting involved with their lives. So it was a very strange situation. It was a very strange and tough period and it ended with me throwing a hundred and fifty pages of a novel off a cliff, in the presence of our gardener who was illiterate and was completely astonished that anyone could actually sit down and write a hundred and fifty pages and then throw them off a cliff.
After that we came back here and I wrote The Mama Tass Manifesto while Heir was made into a film called Jennifer On My Mind, a terrible film that ran for about a week and a half. The screenplay was done by Eric Segal, who is one of the world's worst writers. Then I got little screenwriting jobs and started writing these detective novels.
Q: What got you interested in writing detective novels?
A: I had toyed with the idea for a while before I actually got down to doing it. I had read a few of Ross Macdonald's books and really liked them. When you live in Los Angeles your way of perceiving the city is so informed by Chandler and Hammett and Macdonald that – I mean, they're the Poets Laureate of the city, if Los Angeles can be said to have Poets Laureate. I guess I got interested in the city and grew to like it and the more I grew to like it the more I wanted to try out the genre, and then Alan Rinzler, my old editor, came in from the East to be head of Straight Arrow Books and I called him up and said, "Hey, I want to try this detective novel and it'll be this and this and this is what the detective will be like" and he said, "Oh, boy, let's do that," and we did it.
Q: How long did it take to write?
A: The Big Fix took me a long, long time, I don't remember exactly how long; but Wild Turkey – you're not going to believe me when I tell you...........
Q: How long?
A: I wrote the rough draft in two weeks. I took several months rewriting it, but I did the rough draft in two weeks. What happened was this. I was very late on my contract, and Alan said, "Are you going to get this thing in?" and I said, "Well, I'm having a lot of trouble concentrating at home. I hear you just locked up Hunter Thompson in this motel at Seal Rock, how about doing the same thing for me?" and he said "Ok, anything you say, Ok." So they put me up at this place called the Seal Rock Inn, which is kind of the equivalent out here to the Chateau Marmont. They stuck me in there with an IBM Selectric, and I was at it eighteen hours a day. That’s how I did it. It’s a great way to work. You work that way on a novel and those characters are alive in three days. All of a sudden the outside world has disappeared. The maid who cleaned the room used to come in and tell me all kinds of stories about the wild man who was in there before me, meaning Hunter. She said she never saw anybody drink so much bourbon or take so many pills. She couldn't understand why I didn’t do the same thing. I would say, "No, no, all I want is black coffee."
Q: Has Hunter Thompson made any comment regarding the character Dr. Gunther L. Thomas, "the renowned Ph.d. in guerilla journalism," in Wild Turkey?
A: Yeah. He didn't say anything directly about it because he's kind of evasive. I heard he made some snide comment, I forget exactly what. I haven't seen him since the book came out.
Q: What about Abbie Hoffman, who bears a strong resemblance to Howard Eppis, the "second-rate radical" in The Big Fix? Have you heard from him?
A: No. I met Abbie Hoffman once in my life at a party and I haven’t seen him since.
Q: What’s the history of your own political involvement?
A: In the early sixties I was in SANE and all that and I’d say I became more and more political through the late sixties, even into the early seventies.
Q: Were you at Yale during the Black Panther Party confrontations?A: No, all that happened right after I left. I wasn’t there. I was always missing those events. Moses Wine is fantasy, he was always there, every time. The only time I was ever actual1y on the scene was when they were busting heads at the Century Plaza in '68. I never went to Berkeley either, of course, like Moses Wine did. Dyanne's always saying I'm ripping off her past, because she went to Berkeley.
I was involved with the formation of the Peace and Freedom Party in California in 1969, and I was one of the founders of the Echo Park Food Conspiracy here in Los Angeles four or five years ago. I was also heavily involved in a men's consciousness raising group here for about a year and a half.
Q: Was that a worthwhile experience?
A: Well, I read an interesting critique of men's groups done by an organization up in the Northwest called, I think, the Seattle Liberation Front. What they said was that actually a lot of men's groups backfire, that all they accomplish is to make a lot of very ambitious men feel so good about themselves that they can go out and exploit the world even better. It was a very interesting critique. It was a vicious critique on a certain level, but on another level it happened to be somewhat true of our group. One of the men in our group, who was a veterinarian's assistant at the time, is now head of motion picture production for Motown. Another who was a beginning lawyer is now one of the major lawyers in the entertainment industry. It has been like that for most of the men in our group. There's an old organizer's saying that you can’t organize around other people's oppression. I think that's true about men’s groups. You can't just get a whole bunch of men together and say "Look how we're fucking over women," and "What'd you do today to fuck over women?" That just doesn't work. To begin with, the men in those groups are not the kind of men who do that kind of thing in an overt way. Secondly, "Mea Culpa" doesn't really change you. What changes you is some woman coming up to you and saying "Cut that out or goodbye."
What we did do was deal with certain problems of men’s oppression which are very important in our society — competitiveness, the inability to talk to each other and so forth which are, you know, very strong oppressive things which are placed on men. However, once they are lifted from you — not lifted, let’s say ameliorated — what it leaves you with is the ability to operate even better in the society. I think those people up in Seattle had a lot of accuracy in their objections to men’s groups, but I treasure the experience because I made some very close friendships out of it.
Q: Did the group deal with feelings or did it stay mostly with intellectual concepts?
A: No, we dealt with feelings. We were aware of the traditional critique of consciousness raising groups that if you just deal with your intellectual concepts about this or that you're not really gaining insight or being honest.
Q: Well, if people really get in touch with what competition does to them, it's hard to understand why they would choose to get back into it.
A: I know what competition does to me and yet I'm still a very competitive person. I don’t think I'm as unconsciously competitive in a bad way as I was before, which is good. That's definitely a step forward. And if I were really competitive and aggressive, I don't think I’d be sitting here writing books and screenplays and trying to make myself known that way.
Q: Did your marriage with Dyanne start out being pretty traditional?
A: Not entirely. A lot of that has to do with how people meet. Dyanne and I met as students in a situation where we were both equals. Meeting as students can be dangerous, too, with no guarantee of being successful at what you're going to be doing other than ambition and love of it, but it's not like some young teaching assistant marrying a student. We got married while we were still at Yale, in June '65. We were both very young at the time and she did not want to have my name.
Q: She was there in '65?!
A: Yeah, she was really hip about those kinds of things. She didn't make a big deal out of it, but, you know, she'd read Simone de Beauvoir. I raised a really strong objection about it. I think mostly I was worried inside about how it would look to others. Because I don't think I really gave a shit myself. I mean, why in the world would I care? And today I wouldn’t care at all, period. Because now no one I care about would care.
Q: Well, what's the situation? Does she have your name?
A: Yeah, she does. For her writing name she uses her middle name and her maiden name, it's a big long name, Dyanne Asimov-Simon.
Q: Would you say something about your daily life together, in terms of sharing tasks and things like that?
A: Well, I don't think we really share equally. I think Dyanne probably ends up doing more of the shit-work, although it's probably closer than 98% of marriages in this country to genuine equality. It's interesting the way certain societally-based things still work on us –and they do still work on her as well as on me, even though she's a feminist.
To this day, for some reason or other, I don't do the laundry. On the other hand, for some reason or other, she never changes the light bulbs. Neither of us are very meticulous housekeepers so that makes it a lot easier to begin with.
Q: Do you pretty much share child-rearing tasks?
A: There again I would say there's a slight edge of difference, to be honest. On the other hand, I do a tremendous amount of it and I love it.
Some things just break down according to metabolism. She ends up getting up during the night more, but I'm the one who always ends up getting up to make breakfast. I don't know why that happens, but some things just happen that way. It's a very interesting subject how all that evolves in a relationship.
Q: In terms of you two collaborating on writing screenplays, you must spend a lot of time together. Does that work out?
A: Yeah, it does work out; if it didn't work out we wouldn’t do it. Of course, there are problems of claustrophobia that come up because it's the same person you're going to bed with at night whom you're getting up with in the morning to hammer some problem out.
I know couples who write together all the time, but I wouldn't want to do that and I don't think Dyanne would either.
Q: Getting back to Moses Wine: do you see the detective novel as a medium for getting ideas across?
A: Sure. Always. It's a very good medium for that. There's nothing more moralistic than a detective story. Think about it – who's good, who's bad, that's what you're dealing with all the time, and the reasons why they're good or bad.
Wild Turkey is primarily a novel of sexual politics. It deals with the possibility of "open" relationships, which I am personally very ambivalent about, although I tend to think that I'm opposed to them. That's what I was thinking about before I started work on the book, and also the feeling of exploitation of sex in Los Angeles, which is tremendous. Those are the major themes I wanted to deal with.
Another theme running through all the books I've written so far and any other ones I might write in the future is the importance of raising children. It's a subject that is impossible for me not to think about all the time because I constantly encounter it in my daily life, having two children of my own.
I have a very stable marriage, but I chose not to make Moses Wine married. I did that consciously because it wouldn't work well to have him married. He has to be at liberty, as a detective, to move throughout society. But I did give him two children and it's terrific. There are so many people around today raising children as single parents. It's really interesting how they deal with it. I thought it would create a lot of humanity in the character of Moses Wine and a lot of interesting problems in the stories to give him children.
In The Big Fix I was dealing more with the end of the 60's political scene. I wish I'd done some of that better, there's more to it, but maybe I didn't have the perspective. I'd like to go through that whole period again and write about it. People are very afraid to deal with it now, to even think about it at all, except in terms of figures like Patty Hearst, who are sort of 60's throwback figures. In the case of Patty Hearst, it's like she is doing a last 60's dance in the 70's..........
Q: Why do you think people are afraid to deal with it?.........
A: I think it's because ultimately the issues raised in the sixties were very important ones, but they were raised in infantile ways and now when those issues have become even more crucial they're sort of spoiled by the way they were raised in the sixties. What I mean is that our society is much more ripe for revolution now than it was in 1968, when people were running around screaming revolution, when the country was miles from revolution............. now, when the economy is so precarious, is when revolution is really feasible, but no one wants to think about it now.
Q: Moses Wine, of course, is a former sixties radical. To what extent is Moses Wine you?
A: I'm more Moses Wine than anyone else but I'm not him.
Q: Well, you're more Moses Wine than, say, Ross Macdonald is Lew Archer, no?
A: No! I know Ross Macdonald and the first time I met him it took my breath away because I thought I was meeting Lew Archer. After all, you're dealing with a first-person novelist who's filtering certain kinds of observations about society through a persona and he can't be very far from the observations of that character, particularly if he's writing a series about him.
What's interesting about Ross Macdonald – Ken Millar – is that he's a very self-effacing man when you meet him. He once told me that he tries to write the Archer books so that you almost don't feel that Archer is there — something like that, I wouldn't want to say that's exactly what he said because he's very conscious of saying things exactly. He's an extraordinary man, one of the most extraordinary I've ever met in my life. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. As a literary critic I've never met anyone as smart, and he understands the writing process with a thoroughness that's astounding. And he's very helpful and compassionate to younger writers.
Q: What other mystery writers can you recommend?
A: Recently that Swedish husband and wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, have done the best job that could be done in books like The Locked Room and Cop Killer. They write police procedurals. Their books are tremendously interesting because they give you insight into the Stockholm police department, which is as different from the L.A.P.D. as night from day.
Nicholas Freeling, a Dutchman, is very good. And I think Georges Simenon is the world's greatest writer.
Q: He's your favorite?
A: I think he's the greatest writer alive. The breadth of his work is extraordinary! He's like Balzac. His work ranges from the Maigret mysteries to suspense novels of a psychological intensity that is Dostoevskian. The spectrum is mind-boggling. He's written over three hundred books. I actually like the straight ones better than the mysteries. The Nazi period ones are great, like The Man Who Watched the Train Go By, about refugees fleeing across Europe.
Q: Who are your favorite writers outside of mystery writers?
A: It depends on what week you ask me. I love John Fowles and I love Graham Greene. I guess you could say Graham Greene is in the mystery field. That’s who I ultimately want to be like, Graham Greene. If I can be the Graham Greene of this generation, I will have succeeded in spades. I also like John LeCarre a lot.
What other writers do I like? There are a lot of writers I think are real fraudulent. I don't really care much for Kurt Vonnegut. Some Jewish writers, like Philip Roth, bore the shit out of me. Saul Bellow, I guess I like him in spite of himself. Norman Mailer is sometimes wonderful and sometimes a first class bore without parallel. Armies of the Night is certainly the best thing he did; at the time I read that it really blew me away, but I think it scared him and now he's too scared to write another novel.
I think the term "New Journalism" is a fraud, as a term. I think there's great journalism going on, but I never much believed that whole thesis of Thomas Wolfe’s about journalism taking over from the novel and I believe it even less now.
Q: But wouldn't you agree that, just stylistically, some of the finest writing going on is, say, Rolling Stone-type writing?
A: Oh, stylistically, sure, I certainly agree.
Q: The problem is that Wolfe is such an asshole.
A: No, I disagree on that. I'm not talking about the man. I'm talking about that statement that journalism is taking over from the novel. I think the novel is very different from journalism, in matters like the evolution of character through time and things like that, that journalism doesn't handle the same way fiction does and can't handle at all really.
Q: What about women writers?
A: Marguerite Duras is better than anyone could ever dream of being. Judith Rascoe is a friend of mine who wrote a book called Yours and Mine. If you want to read a great writer, she's one of the greatest writers in America. She's really extraordinary.
Other women writers that I like? There are lots and lots of them. Some women writers I can't get into at all. Erica Jong I think is about the lowest.
Q: Any particular reason?
Q: Your Jewish consciousness is very clear in your books. Could you say more regarding your feelings about Roth and Co.?
A: I used to defend Roth, especially when my parents would come down on him. Now I agree with them, although not exactly with the way they say it.
I think Roth is tied up in a kind of self-hate that's very pathetic and I think it limits him tremendously as a writer. I think he's cut himself off as a writer from his material because he spends so much time putting down the folkways of the New York Jewish bourgeoisie. So these people don't have the style some Vienna intellectual. So what? Who cares? What difference does it make? He spends his whole life writing, "Oh, poor me, I wasn’t born some Vienna intellectual and a beautiful blond....." I don't give a damn. Who does? After a while you really get bored with it, and that's why he can't write any good books, because he can’t free himself from this silliness.
Now Bellow is always talking about what it's like to be a very hung-up college professor. That's what he writes about. That's what Herzog, which is probably his purest book, is about, although Mr. Sammler's Planet and some of his other books are really the same thing, they're just done at different ages and with different methods. I spent an evening with Bellow once and he made me feel like I was such an idiot – not deliberately, but he’s so brilliant, it's just extraordinary. I think he's a very brilliant and fine writer, although I sometimes get a little angry when he won’t come out and say and do the things he should politically.
I don’t think Bellow is anti-Jewish. I don't think Malamud is anti-Jewish, either. Malamud is a little boring to me, I must admit, but some of his short stories are really very delightful and charming. Roth is really the only one – except for Mailer, who sometimes tries to pretend it isn't there when it is – the only one who comes out and trades off on it in a cheap way, and it's finally very sad.
Q: What do you think of Dylan's Jewish trip?
A: It's very interesting. I wish I understood it better. I enjoy calling him Zimmerman. He's certainly a real Jewish artist if you look at him in a certain way, and he certainly looks like he just walked in out of the Shtetl. He really does. I mean, if I were casting Gimpl the Fool.... that's exactly what he looks like.
He's obviously very conflicted about being Jewish and he's obviously started trying to deal with it, all that stuff about going to the Wailing Wall. He's such an enigmatic man, though, it's hard to separate that from the many other strange things about him. He's sort of a Greta Garbo. I think he's probably a little crazy.
Finally, though, I don't really understand Dylan. I don't really have a feel for his dilemma. First of all, I don't come from Hibbing, Minnesota. I'm not Midwestern, and the pressures he felt in his formative years must have been very different from the ones I felt. Also, I can understand exactly where these novelists are at because novelists can't hide themselves that well and I'm a novelist myself, I can understand their impulses pretty easily. But Dylan, I don't get him fully, although I like his music. It's clear that he tried to detach himself from his background and then rushed back to it in a kind of headlong fashion; that part of it I can understand in principle, but I don't feel it, I don't get it from the inside, whereas with Roth I can understand where he is at all too well.
Q: What are your personal feelings about being Jewish? And, as a radical, how do you deal with the problem of Israel, which Dylan has given money to?
A: I'm not ambivalent about being Jewish; I feel very good about being Jewish. One thing I have a very violent reaction to is people who don't admit what they are. It really gets to me. Most of all I find it horribly unaesthetic. I learned a lot from the Black thing, when Blacks came out and said, "Hey, look at me." I thought why are Jews so bothered by the fact that they're Jews? Now it doesn't bother me at all.
Politically, I have had my problems with the Jewish community. I had a very sad experience once in Sumter, South Carolina in 1966. Dyanne and I were down there for the Yale Summer Teaching Program. One Friday night we went over to the local temple, just to introduce ourselves. There was a kind of gala reception after the service, which only lasted about a minute and a half. There was a military base down there and I guess everyone figured I was on the base. We were chatting away and finally someone said, "What rank are you?" and I said, "I'm down here teaching at the Lincoln High School.” You can gather what the Lincoln High School was. You should have seen their faces. It was like the invasion of the bodysnatchers, and all these people sort of swept across the floor, and there we were standing all alone. Very sad. It was a very sad moment.
I guess I feel the need for a certain amount of ethnic identification, if only because this is such an alienated society, it gives you something at least. I'm anti-Zionist, although I feel tremendous tugs every time there's a war over there. At first I wanted them to beat the shit out of the Arabs, and then when I saw that they could do it I said "Oh, no, not again." I have a lot of Jewish Chauvinism, but it's not based on Zionism at all. It's based on the Marx-Freud-Einstein syndrome and not on Moshe Dyan and Company. I don't want to see that.
I read a quote from Ibsen, who is one of my heroes, in which he said that Jews are so great because they don't have a country. This was, of course, in Ibsen's time. And he was right, that's the horrible part of it. It's a horrible trap that Jews have fallen into with Israel. I mean, to me what's going on over there in the Mideast is Hitler's cruelest joke, and it has nothing to do with the traditions that I love, like the family holidays and the Hasidim. I love to watch the Hasidim.
Q: Where did you get the character Aunt Sonya, the old radical Jewish woman the Moses Wine books? She's one of the most charming touches in the books.
A: Yes, everyone likes her, so much so that I am thinking of doing a whole book where she and Moses Wine team up to solve the crime. I don't know where I got the idea for her character, but I just love old people with a lot of fight, who go out fighting. Something in me says that that's the way you should go out, fighting.
Q: Well, what's Moses Wine doing these days? Are you working on another book?
A: I want to do another straight, conventional novel before I do another Moses Wine novel. Someday I'm going to do a "Moses Wine's First Case” novel, which I'm thinking of setting in a New York City junior high school in the middle fifties. I was going to do a Moses Wine in Mexico novel, using Castaneda material, getting Moses Wine involved with a Brujo down in Mexico. I’m very interested in the Castaneda books lately, but Dyanne and I are using some Castaneda-type material for a screenplay we're doing and I don't think I'll want to go over the same material twice.
I've decided that the next book I write is going to be a best-seller. I want to establish myself in such a way that I don't have to deal with the problems of book distribution in this country. It's a nightmare. The books never get into the stores in a way that's coordinated with the reviews, and unless you're Irving Wallace they don't promote you anywhere near sufficiently. I used to get really depressed about it. My mother would say, "I just went into Brentano's and I couldn't find your book.....” It's an antique business, run by methods they've been using since 1920 or even longer. I'm fed up with it. You reach a point where you have to take matters in your own hands, because no one else is going to do it for you, and I'm going to write a best-seller so I don't have to deal with all that anymore.
I'm thinking of doing a 70’s version of Elmer Gantry. There's a big trend to join some kind of movement for "self-actualization" these days, and I have a feeling that a lot of the people behind these movements are in it for money and the power, just as Elmer Gantry was with Jesus in the 1920's. I'm thinking of doing a book that would update that motif to the seventies.
Dyanne and I are also collaborating on the screenplay of a Dashiel Hammett story called Dead Yellow Woman about gun-running in San Francisco. We're a week behind on it.
Q: What are your politics these days?
A: I don't know. I don't understand anything any more. I don't have any answers. I know I don't like a lot of people, from Nixon to Tunney, but that doesn't mean much, it's easy to dislike them. I don't really know what I stand for anymore. My ambition right now is just to get better and better at what I do. Also, to spend a lot of time with my kids. That's about all there is these days, because, unfortunately, we're not living in China.