Interview: Max Allan Collins on 'Fancy Anders Goes To War'
We chat with the author about his latest criminal endeavor and explore his mastery over the many narrative delivery systems.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and even more ways to purge a tale from your system. Novel? Short story? Movie? Comic book? A novella? A novella with pictures? Give us a good yarn, and we will devour it. Max Allan Collins has played around in every format, and he relishes them all for different reasons.
His latest story, Fancy Anders Goes To War, is the first of three illustrated novellas featuring the work of artist Fay Dalton. At Amalgamated Aircraft, the titular heroine works alongside Rosie the Riveter. It's 1942, and the war wages overseas, but that doesn't prevent blood from being shed on our shores. The iconic poster child is murdered, and the case falls on Fancy Anders to solve.
The novella reads like lightning. An experience that's not uncommon for Max Allan Collins' audience. He's a master of the quick literary punch. His Quarry and Nolan novels demand a ravenous reading pace, and they leave their mark long after delivering their final stinging sentences.
We first encountered Max Allan Collins through his comics. His first Road to Perdition graphic novel, illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner, gained notoriety after its adaptation into the Sam Mendes/Tom Hanks film. But as good as that movie is, it's not quite the delight that is the source material. Collins' graphic novel owes just as much to John Woo as it does hardboiled legends like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. The comic is a gnarly action-jammed adventure that hits real damn hard. It's a slap you don't forget and a sensation you'll seek in the rest of Collins' laundry list of titles.
Fancy Anders Goes To War comes to us from NeoText. It's one of several recent titles that marries illustration with prose, and comic book fanatics need to take note. They've gathered a cadre of talent around them; everyone from Francesco Francavilla to Howard Chaykin to Eduardo Risso to Max Allan Collins and Fay Dalton.
Collins is having a ball publishing his titles through NeoText, and it was a dream to chat with him about making the story fit the illustrated novella format. We discuss the pleasures that novels and comics, and pictorial prose, afford their creator. We get into the mental shift required when bouncing from comic to novella, and why digital is a grand delivery system but can't replace the physical totem.
This interview was edited for length and clarity, but later this week, you can listen to the entire discussion on our Patreon feed. Just 1 Dollar.
Brad: I am so excited about everything NeoText is doing with its digital publishing arm. And you've never been a stranger to experimenting with the medium. How has this experience been for you so far?
Max: Well, it's been great because I have a wonderful relationship with John Schoenfelder, who's a publisher/editor there, and he doesn't say no to me. And that's not something I'm used to with editors. Usually, you hear a lot of no's, but it has been kind of interesting in that I had to kind of work on them to make sure that there's a print version of what I'm doing, because I have a sizable audience who are... I won't say they're Luddites exactly, but they definitely are physical media folks, including myself. And I really wanted the book to exist as a book, even though I've done a lot with eBooks over the years.
Brad: And being aware of your audience and their needs, I think is something that doesn't get talked too much about when we discuss creative pursuits, but that is certainly a point of view that you have to be aware of as a writer.
Max: Well, I particularly have to be aware of that because I work in a number of different areas, and it's always interesting to me when I get an email from somebody saying, "Oh, I've been reading your mystery novels now for 20 years. And I entered as a fan of Ms. Tree," which is a comic book. So there was a point in my career early on, where I was very frustrated that I had comic book readers and I had the Mystery folks and I didn't seem to be able to get them to come together into one sizable group. That really seems to have shifted a bit. Now, I see people who are saying, "What are you up to now?" As opposed to, "No, this is what I like. Oh, this is what I want you to do. And I don't want you to do anything, but this."
Brad: Yeah, well, I was one of those comics readers. I came to your work through Road to Perdition. In preparation for the film coming out, I discovered the graphic novel, I read the graphic novel, and I guess I didn't really go back and read your books until Hard Case Crime started publishing the Quarry novels. That's where my love affair with Max Allan Collins kind of blossomed into all these other arenas of yours.
Max: Well, Hard Case Crime like NeoText have been, I'd almost say saviors in my career. I've always had the ability to find somebody to publish me, but to find people who basically say, "What do you want to do?" As opposed to me saying, "Oh, what does this market need? What do I have to do here to be able to be part of this market and keep making a living?" Instead, I've got somebody like Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime, who was a fan of my stuff before he started his publishing company. He's been just so attuned to the things that I want to do.
I'll mention Quarry, for example. Quarry was basically a busted series, one of the first things I did. It was a few books, a handful of books in the mid 70's that I thought were really strong and I thought I'd come up with something, but I wasn't given another contract, and I thought that was it.
Over the years, there was some kind of cult-type interest in it. I would run into people at conventions and they'd say, "Oh, I love the Quarry books." And when I came back around with Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime, and he wanted a new Quarry book after all those years, I said, "Great, I'll end the series. I'll do a book called The Last Quarry. And I can actually put a period on the end of the sentence." So I did that and the thing was very well received. It got great reviews, I got a review in Entertainment Weekly for the first time. And Charles said, "It's too bad you ended the series." I said, "Well, let me write The First Quarry now."
So I went back and filled in the stuff that I hadn't written all those years ago. And now there are 15 or 16 Quarry novels. Now, that was a busted series. By conventional thinking, that series had been over for a long, long time. And then it spawned in recent years -it spawned a film, which I co-wrote and a TV series on Cinemax. It only ran one season, but it was there, and I got to write a couple of scripts. It's just a real boon to me to have these people in publishing who really care and have an almost fanish interest in what a writer does.
Brad: Yeah, I bet. And I think that's what I respond to with NeoText, because they are publishing fiction and comics, but they're also supplying some great critical reads. They feel like fans themselves.
Max: Well, John Schoenfelder is very knowledgeable about the kind of crazy B movies, and C movies, and D movies, and F movies that I'm interested in. And we're constantly discovering that we have similar interests and similar tastes and sharing, say, "Have you seen this crazy thing? Have you seen that?" And that really is rewarding and a lot of fun.
Brad: I'm curious about how you tackle something like Fancy Anders Goes To War. Obviously, writing a film, television script, or graphic novel is different than writing a prose novel, or a novella. But do you approach something like this - knowing that it's going to be an illustrated novel with Fay Dalton's work - do you approach that differently than if you were writing something for Hard Case?
Max: Well, that actually kind of evolved. A lot of people will ask me, "When you get an idea, how do you know which medium you should do it in?" And I'll be very frank with you, it's like, "What medium can I sell this to?"
When I did Road to Perdition, it was specifically an editor at DC Comics saying to me, "We want to do some noir graphic novels. Are you interested?" And the answer was yes, and it wasn't a property. I was sitting there waiting for that to happen. That was the door that opened, and that happens quite frequently.
And so I began talking with the NeoText folks, and their format for fiction was generally novella. So I'd had this idea about Fancy Anders and I thought, "Boy, that really kind of fits that form," because she's almost either a long episode of a TV show or a movie, a 90-minute movie, so that's a perfect length, that 30,000-word novella length would be perfect for that particular character.
Then, early on, we landed on using Fay Dalton as the cover artist. Fay had done two covers for two of my previous comic books. I did a Quarry graphic novel series, four issues, and she did one of the covers and I did a Mike Hammer graphic novel series, and she did one of the covers. So I said, "Let's use her on Fancy Anders." I liked the idea that a woman was going to bring a point of view to a female character, and she knocked the ball out of the park with her cover art. And John and I had been talking about possibly doing illustrations in the novella in part to have this project be something that did bridge my two audiences, that did bridge the mystery fiction audience, and the pros audience, and went into my comics audience.
So, when we saw how strong her art was, we started talking about, "Well, how about we have her do some full-page illustrations?" And then I kind of drifted into this notion - this very old-fashioned retro notion - of, "Let's open each chapter with a color plate." I mean, this is back when Howard Pyle was doing a color plate for Robin Hood or something. And there's a little bit of a Nancy Drew thing in there. My wife always talks to me about loving to read the old Nancy Drew books and reading the ones that hadn't been updated, so that she'd be in a high school girl in the 1960s, and seeing this image of Nancy Drew standing on a running board of an old car. And that was exciting, and so that all kind of went into the mix.
Now, initially, when Fay started turning the artwork in, she turns and she says she's going to send roughs. And then these things come in so perfectly finished, you can't believe it. So this is her rough and they were so incredible in black and white, but she had been commissioned to do color. I was arguing for black and white, and then the color came in and I'm, 'Okay, nevermind." The color stuff is fabulous. We did end up using several illustrations where we said to Fay, "When you finish these, do these in black and white, but add some touches and coloring. Red, obviously for blood." I think what she did was phenomenal. And then we went ahead and signed her to do the other two, because I have done three of these and they will come out over a period of about a year and a half.
Brad: I think the first illustrated novella I ever read was Stephen King's Cycle of the Werewolf with Bernie Wrightson. There's a different vibe you have with them, because you are obviously creating things in your imagination as you're reading your prose, but you have a firmer grasp of what Fancy Anders looks like, what Rosie the Riveter looks like. It's an interesting kind of tugging... A back and forth that you're having with an illustrated novel that you don't have with another novel.
Max: Yeah. And I think King is a good example because he's somebody who has a real feel for film and for comics. And yeah, he has a good sense of the graphics and is very visual himself. And for me, one of the liberating things about this is sometimes I'm criticized for doing too much description, I get that sometimes. I'm somewhat old-fashioned about that, kind of comes from my need for control, because if I don't tell you what's going on, you as my collaborator essentially will provide it. Well, I want you to experience it the way I experience it. So I go a little overboard on descriptive stuff, but when you've got somebody like Fay telling you - showing you what the people look like and what the setting is and so on, it doesn't mean that excuses me from doing any of that work, but really I don't have to go in that kind of detail.
And I loved that 30,000-word length. See, even with a Quarry book, and those are short, the stuff I do for Hard Case Crime, they'll still run about 50,000 words. With 30,000 words when I'm limiting myself, I think they really zip along. I went to a lot of trouble to make the chapters all about the same length, so that there would be a rhythm to it. They fairly short, not super short, not [James] Patterson short, but short by my standards anyway.
Fancy Anders Goes To War is now available from NeoText. Be sure to follow Max Allan Collins on Twitter or visit his website. This conversation does not end here. It's an epic chat, and if you want to hear the rest of it, support Comic Book Couples Counseling by joining our Patreon.