Thursday, August 17, 2017

ROLL THE CEDITS: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Roll the Credits is, in short form, the Second World War and liberation of Paris seen through the eyes of author/screenwriter Hector Lassiter.

But it's also a special novel in the Lassiter canon in a personal sense.

Long before Roll the Credits, there was the Lassiter entry Head Games. That novel was dedicated to the memory of my maternal grandfather, William Charles Sipe, Sr.



In Head Games, I was trying to write the kind of fiction book my grandfather most loved to read—pulpy and fast, but with some gritty (and dark) heart.

My granddad had three sons, two of whom would serve in the military.

William C. Sipe Sr. and Jr.
The eldest, whose shared name promoted by grandfather to "Sr." status, saw action in Europe during the Second World War. He passed away a few years ago. One night, bumping around online, I found a little photo of Uncle Junior in Europe, in what appear to be happier times. This is the shot:

In a bar in Corvallis just before the 70th went to Fort Leonard Wood.
From left to right: J.D. Hollingsworth, William C. Sipe Jr,
Johnny Borowski and Johnny Kaufman.
He's the dark-haired guy in the dark jacket. I've spent a lot of time looking at that photo. I see some of my own features in that face...imagine how different my life was at that age from his.

Once—just once—I remember my grandfather talking about some war experiences shared with him by my Uncle Junior. It was graphic, pretty terrible to hear, even for a nine- or ten-year-old with already dark reading tastes. At the time, I thought maybe my grandfather was reciting this story from conversational memory.

Many years later, some of my grandparents' photos and letters were passed down to me. Among them, I found a letter my uncle had written his parents from over there. Its written in cursive, in pencil. I saw then that the one-off, dark story my grandfather shared with me sprang from this letter. Some excerpts:

May 28, 1945
Hanau, Germany

Dear Mother:
This is Monday. I'm ok, everything is allright here. I haven't received a letter from you for three days now. I hope this finds you all well. Tell the children hello from me.

They have relaxed the censorship regulations so now I can write more than I could before.

There's a lot that I would like to tell you but it would take a whole tablet. I can tell you the town that I have been in and the ones we have fought in. I'm glad that at the time I was in combat I couldn't tell you much because I would have worried you more than before.

When we left Fort Leonard Wood, we went to Camp Miles Standish near Boston. We were there from the 23 of Dec to the 8th of Jan. We reached port after nine days at sea. It was Marseille in Southern France. The harbor there was filled with sunken ships. The first night there we had an air raid it really gave us a thrill but it was nothing like the things that were to come.

In about two weeks, we started to the front to go into combat. We were all on edge not knowing what was to come. In about a week we had reached a position about two miles behind the front lines. We couldn't sleep at night because the big guns were firing continuous.

We were shoved into combat in about three more days. We started fighting in France...  I want to tell you what my job was before I go any further. I'm in a liaison section it works with the infantry. We live, sleep and eat with them on the front lines. We direct the artillery fire on the enemy, therefore we have to be on some high ground where we can see our troops and the enemy at the same time.

The most that I have ever been scared was one night when we were on Spicheren Heights, near Spicheren France. We were on the very front lines... We were sitting on top of this hill overlooking the Krauts. All at once they started a drive and we were caught flat-footed. They sent about 20 tiger tanks at us and about 300 men.

I was never so scared in my life. I was in a foxhill on top of a hill and didn't have a chance in the world of getting out. You have never seen or could imagine a sight like it. The shells were hitting the ground and the trees all around me. The tanks were about 300 yards from us and our anti tank guns were doing a pretty good job on the tanks but the Krauts kept on coming. The tanks came to about 100 yards of us and stopped, but the infantry kept right on coming. We were directing fire from the artillery on them and killing a lot but more kept coming. When they got too close for artillery fire all I could do was fight side by side with the infantry. They were within fifty feet of us before we opened up with our small arms.

They were dropping like flies but so were our men. Three of them came for the same foxhole I was in, shooting their rifles at me. I knew that I had to do something quick so I stick my head (out) and let go about 50 shots from my Tommy gun at them. Most of my shots hit them in the stomach and they died instantly. They were the first that I've ever killed and were the last. By that time our tanks had gotten up there and more infantry. We pushed them back to where they were before and the next day we drove on...

Sometimes I dreamed about those three men I killed. They were about 22 or 23.

I will close now. Write and don't worry. I'm in no danger now and I won't be unless I should go to Japan.

Love,
Bill
————
Update: I've since found a long, compelling, photo rich history of the 493rd Amored Field units' combat history that lays out the action that so affected my uncle. (P. 41 of this pdf.) It appears it happened on Feb. 22, 1945: "They closed in on our troops from four sides. The attack was sustained for 30 minutes..."—CM
————

When I was a kid, World War II wasn't all that long ago. Most of its surviving vets were still fairly vital men. This year they are in astonishingly short supply.

We particularly romanticize that conflict, of course. So many great love songs came out of it; they still grind out WWII movies.

To many minds, rightly or wrongly, that war constitutes the last just and "good" war.

In the course of writing Head Games, I included an article penned by poet Bud Fiske about Hector Lassiter's life—some pulpy bio/profile Fiske had penned for the long-defunct men's journal, True Magazine.

I built into Hector's backstory a kind of notorious World War II history lifted from the life of author Ernest Hemingway.


In effect, Hem went over to Europe as a war correspondent, but morphed into a guerilla leader who was among the first into Paris, precisely seven decades ago this year.

In writing Print the Legend, I again injected a little more about Hector and his picaresque, somewhat controversial World War II war correspondent comportment.

Flash forward a year or so. All of the original projected seven novels in the Hector Lassiter series were in at least first-draft form. Head Games was then freshly nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Hector and I had some buzz.


An editor from St. Martins comes courting. John Schoenfelder reads all of the Lassiter drafts. We have this long evening telephone conversation in which he pitches me on writing yet another Lassiter. Its the Lassiter he really wants to publish, but doesn't yet exist.

The novel John envisions would encompass Hector's World War II adventures. (He had some other ideas, too, some involving Hector and the writing of Mein Kampf, a concept I could just never figure out a way to bring off...)

I went down some different alleys when I began to tackle that book.

I wanted to touch on pre-WWII German cinema's influence on film noir, the genre sometimes-screenwriter Hector Lassiter swam so deeply in.

My now sixteen-year-old eldest daughter was deeply engrossed by the Holocaust and Anne Frank at the time. More grist...


I was also reading some newly released materials related to Hemingway's WWII efforts, along with some books about the OSS and this strange special military ops branch...

Seems at some point, the Office of Strategic Services employed filmmakers, authors and other creative types to engage in black-ops and efforts at enemy misdirection. 

These guys recorded soundtracks to emit from empty forests that simulated nonexistent troop action. They painted canvases to fox aerial surveillance planes into "seeing" rows of planes and tanks.

They used authors like Hector to script fake radio chatter studded with bogus intelligence disguised as injudicious, informal banter.

All of this went into the stew, along with Mr. Schoenfelder's insistence that the whole brew come to a boiling point with a climax in what he termed, "the steaming jungles of Brazil."

There was so much to get into the pot—the turbulence of the Liberation of Paris, the reprisals against those Parisians who collaborated or consorted with the occupying German forces... The fallout for the Hemingways and Lassiters who bent the rules to help the great cause...

But then Roll the Credits went onto the back burner for a long time.

John and I edited Credits, had it in line for a 2011 release, but then John moved on to other publishing fields and I sensed his successor wasn't fully behind RTC, didn't connect with the novel's subject matter. 

I instead pitched her on a swap, and we ended up with One True Sentence closing out my St. Martin's contract run. (I did creep the antagonist from RTC into the opening pages of OTS, however.)

In the intervening years, verbal agreements were made to publish RTC elsewhere, and then they dissolved. Things fell apart; the center would not hold.

Enter Betimes Books: At last, on the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, Roll the Credits finally sees the light.

This is Hector's own private war from Lyon through Paris and on into the Liberation. From there it's back into Hollywood, just a few months after the events of Head Games.
And, for John, it's those steaming jungles of Brazil in all their sweaty, deadly glory.

Roll the Credits marks the first time since Head Games that Hector narrates his own story.

RTC is also the last of the big-page-count Lassiter novels. (You need some real room for a subject as big as WWII and the birth of film noir).

This one was written in the early months of 2009. Like Toros & Torsos, it came together very quickly in first draft.

The greater struggle was finding the right title for the book. For the longest time, the novel lived under the pulpy working title, Hector Lassiter vs. the Nazis.

In the end, I took inspiration from the title of a then recently-released song by Tom Russell that went to the heart of RTC's cinematic themes. 

Here's a music video of that tune, as well as the three book trailers prepared for Roll the Credits.








ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook


PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio

DEATH IN THE FACE: Paperback/eBook

THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH: Paperback/eBook

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

THE GREAT PRETENDER: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Nazis, black magic and secret history collide in Craig McDonald's "The Great Pretender," which spans the decades-long, uneasy friendship between Hector Lassiter and Orson Welles, from the run-up to Welles’ infamous War of the World’s “Panic Broadcast of 1938” to the set of the noir classic "The Third Man" and ruins of post-war Vienna.

The novel finds the actor and author in a race for a lost holy relic promising its possessor infinite power but a ghastly death if lost. 

Hector and Orson's competitors in their quest for the "Spear of Destiny" or "Holy Lance" include German occultists, members of the Third Reich, a sensuous Creole Voodoo priestess and a strangely obsessed J. Edgar Hoover. 

—Jacket copy for THE GREAT PRETENDER, The Fourth Novel in the Hector Lassiter series.


Readers of the Hector Lassiter series who kept up with various interviews I gave over the years may have rightly been taken by surprise by the announcement and release of THE GREAT PRETENDER in Autumn 2014.

When Betimes Books determined to publish the entire Hector Lassiter cycle, and in something like chronological order, it spurred me to write two additional novels I’d originally contemplated, and even taken cracks at here or there, but hadn’t quite pulled together when the original eight novels were completed between roughly 2006 and 2010.

THE GREAT PRETENDER and DEATH IN THE FACE, featuring respectively, Orson Welles and Ian Fleming, were key to telling Hector’s larger arc as writer and man over the course of the series of novels. They were also the last of the Lassiter novels I wrote in what became a finite, 10-novel cycle. Both were written after a hiatus of a few years of writing about Mr. Lassiter.

The supernatural plays a significant role in THE GREAT PRETENDER: I’d long planned to write something involving Hector and voodoo, maybe set largely in the 1940s and spread over perhaps the French Quarter and Harlem.

But I just couldn’t quite find the hook to hang it all on, until, when preparing the novels for a brisk, Betimes’ publication, I decided Orson Welles required a “Print the Legend”-style treatment that would bring the auteur front-and-center after memorable, extended cameos in HEAD GAMES and TOROS & TORSOS.


PRINT THE LEGEND is my magnum opus on recurring Lassiter “character” Ernest Hemingway; I felt Orson needed a similar deep-dive narrative to fully illustrate his cautionary example, again, ala Hemingway and later, Ian Fleming, for an aging Mr. Lassiter.

It was at that point that I dusted off some go-nowhere drafts of my Lassiter voodoo novel and began to reimagine the tale through a Wellesian prism.

Orson was a very dedicated, and high-end "amateur" magician, as I’d already touched upon in T&T. 

He was also a bit of an occultist and a key figure in early-20th Century race relations and its intersection with art, most notably in his all-Black production of Macbeth (popularly referred to as “Voodoo Macbeth” in the day). 


Also, as earlier touched upon in TOROS & TORSOS, Welles had dared to pursue an interracial love affair with torch singer Billie Holiday around the time he was shaping CITIZEN KANE.

With Welles firmly in place as Hector’s main foil, and the plot beginning to take shape as it zig-zagged around and through Welles’ heyday successes to his quick-arriving eclipse as a bankable director, more of the plot began to suggest itself. 

The novel’s late-1930s setting and use of the Panic Broadcast—an event widely regarded as having been fueled by European war flames that would soon reach America—suggested a Nazi subplot that would transition the series into the next Lassiter book, the World War II-centric ROLL THE CREDITS.


At first glance, Nazis and the occult might not seem like much of a thing outside of a couple of Indiana Jones films.

But George Lucas certainly didn’t invent Nazi fervor for the occult. 

Decades before Indiana Jones stole Doc Savage’s act and chased after the Ark of the Covenant, The Thule Society, a loosely described “"German study group" that cherished all things “Aryan” also  embraced “esoteric studies” and “lost” relics collection.


The Thule Society also required recruits to sign an oath assuring, “"The signer hereby swears to the best of his knowledge and belief that no Jewish or coloured blood flows in either his or in his wife's veins, and that among their ancestors are no members of the coloured races."

Not so surprisingly, the Thule Society became a foundational organization for the eventual Nazi party. 

While Adolph Hitler might not have been much of an occultist himself, several of his key henchman emphatically did embrace the supernatural.

Orson Welles. 

Nazis. 

The occult. 

These are the spooky engines propelling THE GREAT PRETENDER.

You can read the first chapter here.

(Mr. Welles will also be a strong presence in the forthcoming, HEAD GAMES: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL, coming Oct. 21 from First Second Books.)






ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook


PRINT THE LEGEND: Paperback/eBook/audio

DEATH IN THE FACE: Paperback/eBook

THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH: Paperback/eBook