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Interview: March 26, 2010

March 26, 2010

YOU CAN’T STOP ME, the latest thriller from Max Allan Collins, follows a small-town sheriff turned private eye/reality show host in search of a serial killer who wants to be caught on national television. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Collins explains which real-life figure his protagonist, J.C. Harrow, is partly modeled after, and names some of the famous criminals of the past century who have sparked his interest while researching this novel. He also discusses his collaborative work with co-writer Matthew Clemens, as well as his wife, Barbara Collins, and mentions a few of his favorite projects from his prolific writing career. YOU CAN’T STOP ME is the title of one of your latest books and is the first in a new series you are writing in collaboration with Matthew Clemens. It features J.C. Harrow, a former law enforcement officer who, as the result of the senseless murder of his wife and son, channels his grief into a reality television program called “Crime Seen!,” which leads to his own investigation into his family’s murders. While comparisons to John Walsh might be inevitable, who is Harrow’s real-world model?

Max Allan Collins: I’m only vaguely aware of John Walsh and actually have never seen an episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” I used to watch “Unsolved Mysteries,” with Robert Stack, which is actually more pertinent, because in some sense Eliot Ness probably is as close to a real-world model for Harrow as anybody.

I have a big interest in Ness, and have written four novels about him and a play that became an indie feature, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, which is out on DVD and has appeared on PBS stations. Ness is a public servant, honest and hardworking, who became a media star of sorts. So Ness is definitely in Harrow’s DNA.

BRC: One of the more interesting elements of YOU CAN’T STOP ME is that the “Crime Seen!” team, particularly Harrow, has a number of investigatory avenues that they can pursue because they are not law enforcement, while they can access avenues and sources that ordinarily would be open to law enforcement due to the team’s celebrity status and Harrow’s standing as a former officer. What, in your opinion, is the most significant law enforcement tool that has been developed in the last 15 years? And is there anything in particular that you would like to see developed?

MAC: I’m going to turn this question over to Matt Clemens, who handles the forensics research, much as he did for my CSI, Bones and Criminal Minds tie-in novels. Matt has formed long-term relationships with real CSIs and others in the law enforcement community, and together we spent two days at the real Las Vegas CSI HQ, which looks nothing at all like the TV version.

Matthew Clemens: Despite all the advances in technology, it’s still the standards --- footprints and fingerprints --- that solve a great many crimes. One of our technical advisors claims that footprints are still the most important. As he says, “If the guy isn’t Peter Pan, he didn’t fly into the crime scene, he walked.” There is, on the horizon, a new technology that will allow faster (possibly while still at the scene) DNA identification. Any time the police can get more information faster, it’s a helpful step.

BRC: The investigation that propels YOU CAN’T STOP ME concerns a serial killer who wants to be caught so that his message can be heard. During the course of the novel, the “Crime Seen!” team, while conducting their investigation, discusses the methods and motives of a number of serial killers. In your opinion, who is the most interesting of the known serial murderers in the last century, either here or abroad?

MAC: I did extensive research on John Wayne Gacy for my Ness novel, BUTCHER’S DOZEN, which was the first book-length look at one of America’s first serial killers in the modern sense, Cleveland’s Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run. I also wrote about Ness and the Butcher in the Nathan Heller novel ANGEL IN BLACK, which suggests that the Butcher was responsible for the famous Black Dahlia murder.

And while it’s not this century, Jack the Ripper has been a big interest of mine since I was a teen and read Robert Bloch’s story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” With Matt’s help, I did a very successful “CSI” graphic novel (it was nominated for a comics industry Harvey Award) about a modern-day Ripper copycat, called SERIAL.

Gacy is interesting chiefly because he so insinuated himself into the mainstream of his community, even putting himself in front of cameras next to celebrities. Matt and I also got very interested in the BTK case and wrote a CSI novel about it, BINDING TIES, that was published the very week Rader, the real killer, was caught. What we had imagined was pretty close, probably because of all the serial-killer research we both have done.

BRC: The “Crime Seen!” television series is one of my favorite parts of YOU CAN’T STOP ME. Have you tried to sell this concept to a studio or television network? If you were able to do so, and had creative control, who would you put on the “Crime Seen!” team?

MAC: A producer has it now and should be shopping the concept soon. In a way it was always intended to be a TV concept, because Matt and I had developed our forensics/serial-killer approach in three series of TV tie-ins, starting with the very successful CSI series (we did the 10 ten books, many of which got onto the USA Today bestseller list). We also did one Bones novel and three Criminal Minds.

So the idea was, let’s create a concept in this genre of our own. We began with the idea of a superstar forensics team, then I got the notion of bringing reality TV in --- what if there was a reality show version of “CSI”? I have worked off-and-on in independent filmmaking since the mid-’90s, doing five indie features and two documentaries as well as some short films, so I’ve been around production enough to be able to create a believable nonfiction background for our fictional world.

As for casting it, Pierce Brosnan would make a good Harrow, if he could tone down his British accent and take the cut to TV pay.

BRC: You wrote YOU CAN’T STOP ME with Matthew Clemens and the Trash ‘n’ Treasures series with your wife, Barbara. What do you enjoy the most about collaborating with another author? And what, if anything, do you enjoy the least?

MAC: First, there’s no downside. None.

Second, the rewards are considerable. Probably the most fun comes at the plotting stage, which Matt calls spitballing. It’s the same with the Trash ‘n’ Treasures books --- Barb and I go to an Applebee’s or a Chinese restaurant and just start brainstorming over lunch. I’m surprised nobody in an adjacent booth has called 911 having overhead a murder plot!

If I had to say what’s “least” fun, it’s the many misunderstandings readers and critics have about collaborative works. Take YOU CAN’T STOP ME --- readers see my name in big letters and assume Matt is just a helper. And professionals in the business see my name big and Matt’s small, and think Matt ghosted the book --- did all the work.

These are very 50/50 undertakings. Same with Barb and me. In both cases, we plot together, my co-writer does a draft, rather on the short side leaving me room to do my thing, and then I do my draft. The only difference between the Harrow books and the Brandy and Mother books is that Clemens doesn’t have to sleep with me. And boy is he relieved.

BRC: Your name is so branded with detective fiction in several different media that it is difficult to imagine you doing anything other than writing, even though you also have a rock band that you devote your time to as well. What do you see yourself doing for a living if you weren’t writing?

MAC: My band Crusin’ --- under several names, including the best-known, the Daybreakers --- has been around since 1966. We are in the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and our 1968 Daybreakers single on Atlantic, “Psychedelic Siren,” is on many anthologies of notable garage band rock. For about two years in the mid-’70s, right before I got the Dick Tracy strip, I made my living as a rock musician with Crusin’. So I think it’s fair to think that if I hadn’t gone down the writing path, it would have been some other area of the arts: music, acting, even cartooning (which I had a youthful knack for).

The only real jobs I’ve ever had are bus boy, grocery clerk and teacher. I did teach college for five years, though mostly part time. I was an okay teacher, but a really first-rate teacher has to devote his or her life to the excellence of others, and I am frankly too interested in my own achievements to find the proper degree of selflessness. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

BRC: Of all the projects you have worked on, whether comic books, film, or novels, do you have a personal favorite? And which do you consider to be your best?

MAC: I would be crazy not to pick ROAD TO PERDITION, because that graphic novel (with the gifted illustrator Richard Piers Rayner) gave me a great career boost. I am likely to be remembered for that work, if nothing else, because it generated a terrific, Oscar-winning Tom Hanks/Paul Newman film. A film I like very much, by the way. (The blu-ray is coming!)

But what I’m proudest of is my Nathan Heller series. My editor at Kensington, Michaela Hamilton, worked with me on that series at NAL. It was our working relationship with Heller that brought us together for both the Trash ‘n’ Treasures and the Harrow series.

Heller is a private eye operating out of Chicago in the mid to late 20th century. He’s very much a traditional Phillip Marlowe/Mike Hammer private eye but involved with major unsolved or controversial crimes or events --- real ones, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the shooting of John Dillinger, the assassination of Huey Long, even the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and the Roswell incident. The first of these, TRUE DETECTIVE, won the Shamus for Best Novel in 1983, up against a very strong field of the top writers in the genre. That book put me on the map, and I consider those that followed to be my best and most potentially lasting work.

The first new Heller novel in 10 years will be out from TOR/Forge in the summer of 2011 --- BYE BYE, BABY, about the murder of Marilyn Monroe.

BRC: What authors have inspired your writing career and your choice of genres? When you were younger, say, in high school, did you see yourself doing what you are doing now?

MAC: I wanted to be Mickey Spillane when I grew up --- and now I am finishing Mickey’s manuscripts for his estate. So I guess I made it full circle. The first Hammer I completed, THE GOLIATH BONE, came out late 2008, and the next one, THE BIG BANG, will be out in May of this year. I completed the third, KISS HER GOODBYE, not long ago. These are for Otto Penzler at Harcourt, and I have three more unfinished Hammer manuscripts waiting if the first three are successful.

Spillane was my hero as a kid, but I also loved Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Horace McCoy, W.R. Burnett and Ian Fleming. Donald E. Westlake, mostly his Richard Stark persona, was the last major influence on my work. In later years, I grew to love Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and Chester Himes. So I am firmly a mystery genre guy, and not just hardboiled, or noir as it’s now called.

BRC: You are publishing at least three different books this year and have produced a body of work over the past three decades that is enviable from a quantitative and, even more importantly, qualitative standpoint. What is your writing schedule like? How has it changed from when you first started writing?

MAC: I am working harder now than ever. I was very lucky toward the start of my career, because I landed the Dick Tracy comic strip --- writing, not drawing. This was a job that paid well --- not spectacularly, but well --- and I was just 22 or 23 at the time. It took me a day or, at most, two a week to do, and I had that regular paycheck for 15 years. That meant I had the luxury of taking my time and doing one Heller a year, or maybe Heller and something smaller.

When I lost Tracy --- I take perverse pride in being the only writer on record to get fired from a comic strip for insubordination --- I fell into the world of tie-ins...novelizations of films and original books based on successful TV shows. That became a sort of day job for me, replacing Tracy. But it’s a harder job.

So I tend to work six days a week, sometime seven. I would like to slow down, and I have a severe lazy streak. But as I grow older, I have an increasing sense of the finite and want to make sure I get everything done I came here to do.

That’s why I have started Heller up again. That’s why I wrote several non-series stand-alones --- BLACK HATS and RED SKY AT MORNING (as by “Patrick Culhane”) --- to get two books I’d been thinking about doing for years written, finally. The first has an aging Wyatt Earp meeting a young Al Capone, the second is based on my father’s very interesting experiences as a young naive Iowa-born white Naval officer in charge of black sailors in the Pacific during World War II.

Part of this extends to the collaborative work --- wanting to get a really good series going with my wife, and wanting to get Matt out of his “assistant” role and onto the byline of the books we do together.

BRC: On a related note, have you ever experienced a problem with what is known as “writers block?” If so, how do you overcome it?

MAC: I don’t have writer’s block, ever. Sometimes I’m too tired to write, and just need a day off because of burn-out -- typically, I need a week or even two between projects just to re-charge --- but writer’s block is the invention of people who don’t know how to put their butts into their chairs and think through their fingers.

Look, if the bills come, I can’t include a note to my creditors saying, “I have writer’s block.” They sure don’t have bill-sending block.

BRC: How do you stay motivated to write? Is there anything specific you do to recharge your creative batteries?

MAC: Mickey said it best: “The urgent need for money.” I am a craftsman, even an artist, but also a businessman. This is my job. I’m not a teacher who writes books in the summer, or a lawyer or doctor who putters on weekends. This is what I do. I am serious about it, both in terms of the excellence of the work and the professional need to earn an income.

A prime part of my motivation is to achieve excellence. To be really good at what I do, and to come up with things other writers haven’t thought to do. I’m very competitive. I read very little of contemporary fiction, other than to check them out as the competition, which is what they are. That’s why I still primarily read Hammett, Stout, Spillane, Westlake, and so on.

How I stay charged creatively is to not be a johnny one note. I just went from doing a very dark book about my hitman Quarry (QUARRY’S EX, due from Hard Case later this year) to working on the fun ANTIQUES KNOCK-OFF with Barb. From there I go to the second Harrow with Matt, and then to write a batch of pages for a graphic novel called RETURN TO PERDITION (with Terry Beatty for DC/Vertigo). The second half of the year will be the next Heller. I also try to work screenwriting in. I’ll be doing a second Mike Hammer “audio novel” for Blackstone soon, with Stacy Keach playing Hammer (last year I did THE NEW ADVENTURES OF MIKE HAMMER: THE LITTLE DEATH with Stacy, and it’s available now).

BRC: Have you ever considered writing in a genre other than crime and mystery fiction?

MAC: My tie-in work includes westerns (MAVERICK), science fiction (WATERWORLD), Clancy-esque thriller (AIR FORCE ONE), humor (I LOVE TROUBLE), horror (THE MUMMY), action-adventure (G.I. JOE) and so on. That’s one of the things I really like about the tie-ins. I have done several war novel tie-ins --- notably the New York Times bestseller SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but also U-571 and WINDTALKERS. Plus the aforementioned RED SKY AT MORNING.

BRC: What are you working on now? How many different projects, on average, are you normally working on at one time?

MAC: I work on one project at time, with the exception of ongoing comics projects. Because an artist is involved, you often write individual issues of a comic book or batches of pages of a longer graphic novel, making sure the artist is out ahead of you. So those have to be squeezed in and around any book I’m working on. Other than that, I keep my focus on one target at a time.

What I try to do is line things up ahead, so I have something waiting. I have a political thriller I’m hoping to do with Matt, for example, and there’s a vampire detective thing I’m fiddling with. Also trying to talk Barb into a second cozy series, but she is so painstaking on the Trash ‘n’ Treasures books --- right now, she’s spending eight or nine months on her draft --- that it would be tricky.

I guess you can see that my motivation is mixed --- half trying to make sure the lights stay on in this joint, half trying to get to tell all the various stories that come knocking at my creative door. The worthwhile ones, anyway.

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