Le seul hebdomadaire de la région publié une fois par mois

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Romans policiers

Une série de chroniques de

Copernique Marshall

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Annexe no. 4

Every time Chandler would have a new book published, I'd dash down to the lending library - I couldn't afford to buy books at that time - and read right through it the first night. I just can't overestimate the extent he influenced me at the time, turning me in the direction I took at that time as a writer.

"Ross Macdonald Interview" [excerpt], Mystery (November/December 1979)

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LETTER:

To Alfred A. Knopf, 1952, Inward Journey, edited by Ralph B. Sipper, pp. 37-42.

This letter to his publisher was written when Millar's career seemed to be stalled. At that time the paperback rights to his novels were an important consideration for Knopf, and Pocket Books complained that the Lew Archer novels weren't close imitations of Raymond Chandler.



Your letter is a hard one to answer. I'll do my best to answer it as well and candidly as I can, even though that will probably require me to discuss myself and my work in what may seem to be an immodest fashion. First of all, I agree with everything that Pocket Books says, except that I seriously doubt the competence of any expert to revise the book for the better. I don't mean that it can't be improved, or that I'm not open to editorial suggestions for rewriting. I am. But I question the point of view from which Pocket Books would like to see the book revised, and I question it on a number of grounds. Their assumption seems to be that my work in general, and this book in particular, is an imitation of Chandler which fails for some reason to come off. 

Granting that I owe a lot to Chandler, and to Hammett, I have never been a slavish disciple of either. Though I lack Hammett's genius and the intensity which Chandler sustained in his first four novels, I am not wasting my time trying to be one or the other. 

I am interested in doing things which neither of them was able or willing to do. Let us say that Hammett's subject was the conflict of powerful amoral forces in a money society. (You see, I take Hammett seriously. I think he is a better and more original writer than Steinbeck, for example, and will last
longer.) Let us say that Chandler's subject is the evilness of evil, and his highest achievement, the vivid scene of conflict between (conventional) evil and (what he takes to be) good. His unit is the scene, and his overall plots are generally helterskelter and based on the tired device of blackmail. 

For that and other reasons, I can't possibly accept Pocket Books' notion that Chandler is the last word in the mystery or that I differ from him only to err. 

With all due respect for his power, which I am willing to admit I do not match, but which I also insist I do not try to duplicate, I can't accept Chandler's vision of good and evil.

It seems to me that it is conventional to the point of oldmaidishness, that it is anti-human to the point of sadism (Chandler hates all women, and really likes only old men, boys, and his Marlowe persona), and that the mind behind it, for all its tremendous imaginative force, is both uncultivated and second-rate. 

Since my own mind is neither, it would be simple self-stultification for me to take Chandler as my model and arbiter. His fifth novel is his own self-parody and criticism, clearly displaying the inherent corruption of his view.

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My subject is human error. My interest is the exploration of lives. As Pocket Books points out, my stories lack a powerful contrast between good and evil, because I don't see things that way. I did, partly, when I wrote Blue City; it was about a town where I had suffered, and several of the characters were based on people I hated. But even the murderers in the last five books have seemed more human than "bad" to me. I would rather understand them than condemn them. I would rather display them in characteristic postures and sum up their lives and the reasons for their lives than cause a self-righteous hero to denounce them or push them around for the sake of action. Because my theme is exploitation rather than conflict, my fables lack punch. But it would spoil them in my eyes to superadd punch. My whole structure is set up to throw insight into lives, not undramatically I hope; its background is psychological and sociological rather than theological. I suppose you could ask whether I should be writing mysteries at all. The answer is that I have been writing mysteries which are good in the opinion of the critics and my colleagues, not so good as Chandler's perhaps and certainly not so popular, but my own. I have been using the form for my own purposes, as any good writer has to use his form. My hope has been to write "popular" novels which would not be inferior to "serious" novels. As I said, I have barely started.

I chose the "hardboiled" form in the first place because it offered both a market and a convention or structure with which almost anything could be done, a technique both difficult and free, and adapted to the subject matter I am interested
in. But I have been doing my best to improve the form, and to write real novels in it. I'm not exactly a money writer, and think I discern in myself the potentiality of first-rate work, and because I take the mystery seriously as a form of the novel, I couldn't very well let Pocket Books tell me what to write or how to write it. Though I admire their incomes, I have no respect for most of the mystery writers they reprint. Furthermore I have a notion that in spite of the Spillane phenomenon which hasn't much to do with the mystery as such but which probably has a lot to do with paperback publishers' notions of what a good mystery should bethe future of the mystery is in the hands of a few good writers. The old-line hardboiled mystery, with many guns and fists and fornications, has been ruined by its own practitioners, including Chandler. Spillane pulled the plug. I refuse to follow it down the drain, because I'm thoroughly convinced that I'm writing something better. That is what my taste and judgment tell me. I can't afford to abdicate them. If I did, I would have to give up my serious literary and novelistic intentions and write for the slick magazines. I've only tried to write one slick story. It sold. I used the $3500 to finance my doctorate.

If I puzzle Pocket Books, Pocket Books also puzzles me when they seem to take it for granted that the new book is a hardboiled mystery, or my idea of a hardboiled mystery. It isn't. Of course it is a variation or offspring of the hardboiled form, but what distinguishes it from the run-of-the-mill hardboiled mystery is the very tone (which I've tried to make literate, humane and, let us face it, adult) to which they object. I can write an ordinary hardboiled mystery with all sorts of shenanigans and gunplay with my eyes closed. I've spent several years developing a form of my own. To
jazz it up would be unfortunate, according to my lights, and I seriously doubt if that would make it more saleable. If I can trust my own ear as representative - and I always have trusted my own ear - the public ear may be getting tired of jazzy effects. I expect an audience for my attempt to combine the "popular" and the "sensitive" hero, and to forge a style which combines literacy and flexibility with the virtues of the American-colorful-colloquial. Am I optimistic in thinking that the popular audience is growing up?

Now this may seem an exaggerated and swellheaded response to a perfectly just criticism. Compared with Chandler, my book is lacking in some of the more obvious forms of excitement. My murders are few and offstage. There are no gangsters. My main villains are a pathetic old psychoneurotic and a trapped housewife. My heroine gets upset and makes mistakes. My hero is sexually diffident, ill-paid, and not very sure of himself. Compared with Chandler's brilliant phantasmagoria this world is pale, I agree. But what is the point of comparison? This is not a Chandler book. The characters are less remarkable but more lifelike, for example, and the reader gets to know them better. None of my scenes have ever been written before, and some of them have real depth and moral excitement. I venture to say that none of my characters are familiar; they are freshly conceived from a point of view that rejects black and white classification. There is none, or a good deal less, of the Chandler phoniness. The plot makes sense, and could actually have happened. I could go on for pages. I already have.
I repeat, though, that I know the book is improvable. Any book is, at least any book of mine. If anyone has any ideas about how to give it more speed or power or vividness, without sacrificing the values it already has for me, I'll be glad to go to work on them. My sole objection is to the idea that it is a hardboiled story which misses fire. I'll see if I can write a jacket description as you suggest. And of course I'll have all these things in mind as I write the new book coming up. My main intention in this letter has been to assure you that I know what I'm doing and fully expect to be going strong twenty books from now. I couldn't possibly feel that way if I placed my standards outside my own judgment. But on the other hand I'm eager to make a living. Between Spillane and Charybdis is where I am.

What is Pocket Books so worried about? Lee Wright herself (along with various other connoisseurs) named Moving Target as the best American non-Simon and Schuster mystery of its year. With the exception of Drowning Pool, my books since Target have been getting better. Any mystery writer can be made to look bad by comparing him with Chandler, from Chandler's point of view. After all Chandler is universally recognized as the American master of the mystery story, along with Hammett (though I think the latter is far and away the more important writer). I'd prefer to be compared with the current crop. And please give me a little more time. Chandler had been writing for at least fifteen years before I ever thought of writing a mystery, and I turned professional just six years ago. My peak is still coming, and I've yet to find the form that suits my talent. I only know it isn't behind me.

Still, I'm willing to bet that Pocket Books will have to order a second printing of The Way Some People Die. In spite of its dismal record in hard cover, I'm convinced that it can be sold in paper. If it fails, I'll be in a mood to write you a Dark Blue City. Blue City, by the way, took exactly two months and I wrote two other books the same year.

I have no objections to The Convenient Corpse - as a title, though it doesn't exactly jar me all the way down to my heels. It's a nice neat ordinary I title. By all means use it, though I don't quite catch its relevance to the book; that doesn't matter. What do you think of The Sinister Habit? It's a
phrase from Cocteau, the reference being to "the
sinister habit of asking questions."

Well, I've written more than I intended to, let my hair down in fact. I hope I haven't labored my I point of view. If I turn out to be Athanasius against the world, I'll rewrite places where the story drags or characters fade out. Show me the
places. I certainly don't think the whole book needs rewriting. It's already had a lot of it. Don't you think it's a good well-paced story as it stands, and that perhaps a main difficulty comes from pigeon-holing it as a hardboiled item? While no one would mistake it for a major opus, I must confess I was pleased with the characterization - the characters seemed more human than in anything I've done, closer to life - and more than pleased with the plot. The trouble with a highly organized plot, such as I have a predilection for, is that it determines and controls the movement of the story. I know I have a tendency to underplay the individual scenes, to make the book the unit of effect. Chandler practices, and has stated, the opposite theory : that a good plot is one that makes good scenes. I don't wish to give the impression that he's my bête noire. Hell, he's one of my masters. But I can see around him, and am in growing disagreement with much of his theory and practice. That is why the present book, which is more different from Chandler and more like myself than any of the other Macdonald books, is important to me, and why I have set out my ideas about Chandler at such length. As I see it, my hope of real success as a writer, both artistic and commercial, resides in developing my own point of view and craft and technique to the limit. Chandler had something to say or tell, and said it powerfully. I have something different to say, about similar subjects and the same society. The satisfaction of saying it and the hope of saying it better are more important to me than my status as a commercial artist would seem to warrant. But if I overvalue my work, that is the defect of the virtue of believing in what I am doing. My peculiar ability to take the mystery as a serious form is half my strength as a mystery writer. I only wish The Convenient Corpse were a better example of what I am talking about. Now it's up to me to write one.
I'd rather do that than rewrite the book that I have just finished writing and rewriting. My standards are high even though they may be mistaken, and I never let a book out of my hands until I've given it everything that I happen at the moment to have. One of my obvious problems, though, is doing a first-rate job on a book which will ultimately bring me about three thousand dollars, which is scarcely enough to live on for six months. If Pocket Books decides to take it - is that the question at stake? I realize, of course, that your and Pocket Books' intention is to find ways and means of improving sales and incidentally my income. In the light of that, I hope my counter assertion doesn't sound churlish. I suppose I was a little startled by the suggestion that experts might sharpen my book up for me. If any rewriting has to be done, I feel I must do it myself. Revision by persons other than the writer might possibly work for a book, but it cannot work for a writer. That is why Hollywood writers lose their morals so quickly and their writing ability eventually, and why movies in general are so bad. A writer has to defend his feeling of free and joyful creation, illusory as it may be, and his sense that what he is writing is his own work.

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COMMENTS ON WRITING:

Herbert Harker's notes on conversations with Millar, Harker to Matthew J. Bruccoli, 24 October 1982.

Millar taught writing courses in the Adult Education Division of Santa Barbara City College during the 1950s. He encouraged Harker, one of his students, to write a first novel, Goldenrod (published in 1972). Harker made a record of Millar's obiter dicta.

A story should be a circle.

Causality. Everything is connected.

Keep it a secret, like a gestation.

Writing is essentially a private task, and for it
to flourish, it must remain that way.

The story is not the string, and it is not the knot. It is the undoing of the knot.

When I find myself with an unsolvable problem, I sit and gloat for two days. It is in the working out of these problems, the building up to their solution, that the story comes into being.

The control of ideas is only possible through language. And by practice we learn to use the subconscious so that it feeds into the conscious mind at the proper level. This is true of life as well as literature. Our symbols grow spontaneously, not by taking thought.

We are all caught in the web of language. We cannot change it. All we can do is learn to understand and use it. It is a marvelous trap, of course. But we cannot escape it.

The poet, when he uses a word, is conscious of its complete history - all the places where it has been used before - and uses it with all this in mind, then puts his own spin on it. The prose writer must also be aware of the tradition of his language. The principal word in a paragraph explains that paragraph and provides its context, just as the paragraph provides the context for the word.

I think sometimes writers do better under pressure-stress. Not in the early stages of work. One can't stay in the air that long. But as we work to bring it all together, we need great effort, great concentration, as if we were preparing to pilot a suicide plane.... That's quite literally true. We want
to consume everything that's in us at the time, in one great flash.

[On psychiatric problems] These can be overcome, won back, made productive. That is one of the great things we are engaged in-or should be engaged in-in our lives, the reclaiming of these swamps and deserts which are the result of our earlier experiences.

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