Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Interview with David Laurence Wilson

Previously on Pulp Serenade I reviewed Stark House Press’ latest trio of Harry Whittington titles (To Find Cora/Like Mink Like Murder/Body and Passion) and also interviewed Stark House editor and publisher Greg Shepard. Another of the pivotal figures in that collection was David Laurence Wilson, whose drive helped to uncover many of Whittington’s once-thought “lost” works. His essay that opens the collection, “Harry and His Bastard Children,” shows not only the depth of his knowledge about Whittington, but also an instinctive empathy with his working methods and thematic preoccupations.

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing David about the story behind the book’s publication, as well as his other endeavors, including his rubber stamp company. You can see a couple of his designs peppered throughout the interview.

Pulp Serenade: You’ve spent a long time researching and writing about Harry Whittington, including working with Stark House Press to publish two anthologies, A Night for Screaming/Any Woman He Wanted, and most recently To Find Cora/Like Mink Like Murder/Body and Passion. How did this collaboration begin?

David Laurence Wilson: In the early eighties I contributed to the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction. Mostly I wrote about guys I considered friends or mentors, among them Niven Busch, Oakley Hall and Sid Fleischman. When it looked like there was going to be a revision of the encyclopedia, a chance to fix my mistakes, I also wanted to add Whittington because I really enjoyed his work. Later the encyclopedia became less likely, though I still wanted to publish the story on Whittington.

Ed Gorman responded to a comment I made on the Rara-Avis Internet discussion group. I told him there was a book I wanted to do, a collection of Whittington’s short stories, one of Harry's last, unsold efforts. Gorman put me in touch with Greg Shepard, at Stark House, who wanted two novels and an introduction. I suggested A Night For Screaming (because it's so good) and Any Woman He Wanted (mostly because it was a second Mike Ballard novel, after one of Harry's best, Brute In Brass). They were also two completely different types of stories, a good example of Whittington’s variety.

PS: How about this latest trio of Whittington titles? In your introduction, you mention that you have been tracking down his 38 lost books for quite some time, ones published under varying pseudonyms that were previously nothing more than a mysterious footnote to his career.

DLW: I was close to identifying these books as early as 2000, but I dropped the effort for two reasons. Harry's widow, Kathyrn, was uncomfortable with the packaging of the books and the way they were promoted. Also, I'd questioned the editor at Corinth, Earl Kemp, and he gave me an education: Harry had believed that the books were published by Ember. I figured that I knew Harry's style well enough to be able to identify his books from among the others (somewhere over 100 novels). Well, Kemp assured me that there was no such thing as a “writer” for Ember. Books came to the publisher, Corinth, and were released as a “Midnight Reader,” “Nightstand,” “Ember,” basically, any imprint that needed a story. That gave me thousands of possibilities for the Whittington novels. The margin of error was increased by a factor of twenty. I didn't want to make any mistakes in identifying these books and I didn't want to contribute to anyone else's misinformation. I felt that if I didn't have at least one book that I was sure had come from Harry I couldn't make the identifications. I had to start with something that I was sure about. As it turns out, none of the books I’d been reading were Whittingtons, and only one of the novels was published as an Ember Book. I found that one, mostly, by chance.

Two things happened in 2005. Kathyrn Whittington passed away. Identifying the books, showing the world the fullness and endurance of Harry's career, would do nothing to trouble her now.

For my part, I was diagnosed with Stage Three Melanoma. I was entering a year and a half that I cannot completely account for. I received two surgeries and I spent a year in a clinical trial. To explain my attitude, I put aside a book I'd been working on for years, a history of stuntwork in American films, and I began assembling and shaping my interviews, essays and photographs of crime fiction writers like W.R. Burnett, Jonathan Latimer, Dorothy Hughes, and George Harmon Coxe. Before this I had no title for the project. Now I named this book Deathstyles and my idea was to introduce each of the writers by their means of death. I figured that I would be joining them soon enough. I wasn't expecting to finish it. I just wanted to get it into shape so that someone else could take over, and I was considering how I could do this.

I felt like everything was...now or never!

I also figured that I had a commitment to Harry and his family, whom I knew from my work on the essay in the A Night For Screaming collection. Kathyrn had been very supportive and enthusiastic about what I had written in the introduction. Though we never met in person, I have fond memories from our correspondence and phone calls.

PS: So how did things finally come together?

DLW: After Kathryn’s death, twenty-seven books were found in a cardboard box at Harry’s house. None of them were Embers but they were all published by Corinth. Once I got the titles I started hunting for the books, so I could see if they actually were 27 of Harry’s missing books.

Years before this I had obtained Howard Whittington's address from the writer and book dealer Lynn Munroe. Lynn knew I was writing about Harry and I’d used him as a resource. Among other things, Munroe is the authority on Corinth. It was awkward not to fill him in on the whole picture. Finally I shared my research in an email.

I had a handful of books using the pseudonym Curt Colman. There were just a couple more Colman books published by Corinth so we made the assumption that all the Colmans were Harry. I read them, and this was true. Lynn also came up with Passion Hangover, the American version of Like Mink Like Murder, and Flesh Snare, which was the rewrite of To Find Cora (or, alternately, Cora is a Nympho). It was a lot of fun to have someone else with whom I could discuss the search, and whenever I slowed, Lynn seemed to be there with new titles for me to consider. There were several “possible” Whittington novels that I rejected.

PS: How about those short stories Whittington wrote? Before this, I've never heard anyone mention them, only his novels, and the occasional reference to his True Crime pieces. Was he as prolific with short stories as he was with novels? Are they also crime- and noir-related?

DLW: I have 54 of Harry's shorter pieces, and there are probably another 20 or 30 pieces I don't have. This does not include the early, unpublished writing, which was destroyed. In the beginning Harry wrote private detective serials for King Features with the character Pat Raffigan. I have several stories but would like to find copies of the rest of them. It would be fun to put together a collection of the Raffigan stories but I have yet to find a market for it.

Harry wrote crime shorts and often he returned to them for the plots and themes of his novels. He also wrote in other fiction categories: western, romance, and true crime shorts. I've discovered a couple of the romance stories but they were usually published without a byline, so I can't even find a pseudonym for this group. I have several of the true detective stories but have yet to read them. I'm keeping the short stories at arm's length, for now, in case I have the opportunity to prepare them as a collection in the future. Harry’s title was going to be Why A Writer?

For Harry, “compulsive” may be a better description than “prolific,” and I don't think he was alone in this. Once his career got going Harry wrote almost all the time. Whatever the problems in his life – and most of them were economic – he looked to writing as the solution.

PS: That's a great title for a collection. And I'm sure it is a question Whittington must have asked himself many times. What are your thoughts on why he wasn't able to weather changes in the market in the 1960s like other crime writers (such as Ed McBain)? Did he ever try and publish outside the realm of paperback originals?

DLW: Harry was by no means unique in his difficulty surviving as a writer in the early sixties. It's just like today, in that everyone's personal finances are affected by the overall economy, and Harry had the added problem of having financed an unsuccessful film, Face of the Phantom, that put him into debt. Harry took his reverses personally. He wasn't really close enough to the marketplace or to a lot of other writers to be philosophical about it. He did, in fact, drop out of the writing scene for a while, but again, he was not unique in this. He was, however, near the top of the game, so when he fell, he had further to go. He adjusted in the same way that many others did: instead of writing suspense and adventure for an adult male audience he tried writing for children, including a hardback book for children based on the Bonanza series. He wrote several stories for the Man From U.N.C.L.E. digest. He wrote for women, with a female pseudonym, and he wrote the sexually themed novels. During this time he was also trying to write screenplays.

You use Evan Hunter as an example but he was writing for Corinth, just as Harry was, and using several pseudonyms. One strategy was to produce series characters, and this just did not work for Harry. He even tried this with Corinth, and was not successful.

PS: Since you've spent so much time reading and writing about Whittington, what was it that initially attracted you to his writing?

DLW: I’d been doing stories for a news and crime-fiction digest called Mystery, interviews with Burnett, Latimer, and John Bright (the screenwriter of Public Enemy), with more planned. Then the magazine folded. I had faith in the effort, and I kept going. In 1983 my wife and I drove around the U.S. in a VW bus so I could interview crime fiction writers. I knew of Whittington – I wrote for “The West Coast Review of Books” (which had praised his later historical novels) but I had never read his books. Later, I began reading him and I really loved his work – the plotting, the pace, just the way he wrote a sentence – and I regretted that I had not tried to contact him in Florida. I had the feeling that he would have appreciated the attention, and it might have made a difference in how he felt about his career. To a degree, I'm trying to make up for that now.

PS: Has your research for this Stark House anthology changed your impression?

DLW: After working with Harry's manuscripts, looking through his papers, and getting to know his family, I feel no different about those words on the page. They just seem right to me. Maybe it's a guilty pleasure. Sometimes, I think, just because of the haste with which he wrote, there are what I would consider mistakes in his sentences. After revising Like Mink Like Murder I went back again and just looked at those sentences, and made little fixes wherever I thought I could make an improvement, to keep the flow of the words and the action going, taking out anything that would slow Harry’s narrative.

I figure I'm connected to Harry for the rest of my life, as an authority and a friend. This might include a documentary or a graphic novel, but at the least I want to complete one more essay that deals with Harry's efforts as a filmmaker. I'm an intuitive sort, and I feel that between Harry's writing and myself – we just sort of found one another. In a way, I feel that I got the cancer because I was not doing what I should have been doing with my life. I shouldn’t have been working in the sun as a house painter. I also had (and still have) a rubber stamp business, first Hard-Boiled Rubber and then Ready-Made Rubber. I had great collaborations and a wonderful base of customers, but I felt guilty about getting away from writing. Now I feel that working on these books is an antidote to the cancer that nearly killed me. I’m betting that submerging myself in crime fiction can be as healthful as laughter – so take that, Norman Cousins. Rational or irrational, however that sounds, I plan to keep going.

I’m four years out from my diagnosis and I’ve worked on six books for Stark House. Four years without a recurrence is considered to be a “cure”, but I continue my checkups, the next coming up soon. As you may guess, I get a little nervous when it’s time for my scans. I hope everyone reading this will use sun screen, wear hats, and have periodic skin checks with a dermatologist. Early detection is what can save your life. Melanoma used to be rare. Now the incidence of Melanoma is increasing faster than any other form of cancer.

Reading Harry today is just as exciting as when I read my first Whittington book. I get away from him, for other efforts, but I'm always happy to return. Harry left us a lot of stories.

4 comments:

  1. What a terrific interview. I know, Cullen, that you've been swamped with school, so extra thanks for putting this together, and thanks to David for sharing such a fascinating history on Harry Whittington. It's great to have those lost titles identified, but frustrating that it's near impossible to find copies. Kudos to Stark House for making these three titles available. I've read them and they're terrific fun.

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  2. What a tremendous interview with a tremendous writer. We all owe David (and now you) a great deal of gratitude. He's the scholar the pb original field has long been in need of.

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  3. Great interview with David Wilson, a longtime friend and writer, as well as a purveyer of awesome rubber stamps!

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  4. I met David last year. I just found this article. I worked with Harry before he passed away. I was his protege and he taught me to plot and thus gave me a thumbs up for my novel Marquel.
    David is a good soul and deserves to be acknowledged for his work.
    - Emily Skinner
    www.thefilmmom.blogspot.com

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