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December 19, 2012

Sometimes God Plays O. Henry: A Brief Remembrance from Max Allan Collins

Posted by tom

Max Allan Collins is the bestselling author of the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION, the basis for the hit film starring Tom Hanks, and has won two Shamus Awards for his Nathan Heller mysteries, the latest of which is TARGET LANCER. Here, Max recalls the struggles he endured during the early days of his writing career and the two events occuring in consecutive years on December 24th that changed his life.

My ambition, from junior high school onward, was to be a mystery writer, specifically to write and publish the kind of hardboiled fiction people are calling “noir” these days.

I had written four novels in high school and a number of short stories, spending my summers creating the manuscripts that I would send out during the school year.  I had any number of encouraging responses, but no sales. 

At the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, I was blessed to have Richard Yates --- the great mainstream author of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD --- as my mentor. He helped me shape my pulp fiction into something that strove to be something more, even if it didn’t always. He got me an appropriate agent in New York, a crusty ex-paperback editor named Knox Burger, who said of my Raymond Chandler/Mickey Spillane-inspired work, “I’m afraid young Mr. Collins has learned to be a blacksmith in an automotive age.” Yates had told Burger that he thought I was another Dashiell Hammett. Burger said, “No --- W.R. Burnett maybe.”

Burger was right, but Yates remained supportive, and under his guidance, I wrote two crime novels that Burger tried to sell for me. The agent sent the books out for several years, with no luck. Finally an editor said he might be interested if I changed the ending (my protagonist had died on the last page). I did so. By now, I was in my last semester at Iowa City and teaching part-time at the community college in nearby Muscatine. My wife Barb was working at a bank, specifically the bank I had robbed in my first novel,BAIT MONEY, the book whose protagonist I’d recently un-killed.

I hated teaching. I was mostly working with remedial students and was unsuited for the task. One day in December, 1971, I came home and broke down into tears, like any good tough-guy writer. 

I said to Barb, “Is this it? Is this who I am? A teacher who hates his job? After 10 years of trying, am I not really a writer, after all?” Barb comforted me, of course, but it was probably the low point of my young life. Not probably. It was.

A few days later, on December 24th, I picked up my mail at my parents’ house (our downtown apartment wasn’t safe for mail delivery). It was a letter from Knox Burger. BAIT MONEY had sold, and the publisher wanted a sequel as soon as possible. My mentor Dick Yates had moved by now, but I called my other mentor, Donald E. Westlake, who had also encouraged agent Burger to take me on, and shared the incredible news.

Don said, “Sometimes God acts like O. Henry and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

One year later, on December 24, 1972, I drove over to my folks’ house to pick up the mail. A package containing advance copies of my novel BAIT MONEY and the sequel, BLOOD MONEY, were waiting. 

God had written his own sequel to that O. Henry story.