I can understand that readers – and even just interested parties who hear about my unusual collaboration with the late Mickey Spillane – might be interested in how the process works.But it began with Mickey himself asking me, less than two weeks before his passing, to complete his novel The Goliath Bone for him – the Mike Hammer novel he was working on at the time. When I said yes, Mickey must have reflected on the large amount of unfinished and unpublished material he’d be leaving behind – he knew he was dying – and he asked his wife Jane to turn all of that material over to me, for completion.
"Max will know what to do," he told her.
In some circles, it’s well-known that I am the world’s biggest Mickey Spillane fan, which is no small accomplishment considering how many fans he accumulated over the years. He was, after all, the best-selling American novelist of the mid-twentieth century – not just mystery write, novelist. He was also very controversial and a distinctive stylist, though he’d never describe himself as the latter (nor would most critics, demonstrating their lack of insight).
For various reasons, Mickey left a surprising number of unfinished projects behind, particularly for a writer whose work was so commercially valuable. In the early 1950s, he converted to a conservative religious group that discouraged him from writing his trademark "sex and violence" material, and a number of the manuscripts I’ve finished were clearly set aside for that reason. He was also in a near ten-year dispute with his publisher over Mike Hammer money that put the famous character on hold for a while. And he often wrote in a fever heat, so he could do a hundred pages and get distracted and not come back to that material – ever – though always intending to.
Because Mickey trusted me, because he chose me for this, I have never felt intimidated. Nor do I view the material as if I were handling holy scripture. Usually I am dealing with around 100 pages of what will be a 300-page manuscript; often I have character and plot notes and sometimes I have Mickey’s ending already written in rough-draft from.
I also collaborate with two writers who are quite alive and well. My wife Barbara and I, writing as "Barbara Allan," do the cozy humorous ANTIQUES series (Antiques Con was just published). I also collaborate with Matthew Clemens – he worked with me on the forthcoming political thriller, Supreme Justice – and have done for twenty years; we did the CSI novels together. In both cases, I work from rough drafts they provide from plots we develop together. Both Barb and Matt give me short first drafts – approaching two-thirds the length of what will be the final book – and I expand and polish and add whatever new scenes I think are needed.
I approach Mickey’s unfinished manuscripts in much the same fashion. By expanding and revising his unpublished 100 pages into 200 or more pages, I extend the Spillane material deep into the book. And by the time there’s no Spillane to work from, I’m deep into the story and into a sort of joint style. This explains why so many reviewers have commented on their inability to determine where Mickey leaves off and I pick up.
I also use scraps of scenes and short false starts in the Spillane files at appropriate moments in the novels. The very final page of King of the Weeds utilizes one of these scraps.
Prior to completing a Hammer novel, I determine when Mickey wrote the unfinished book and then I read and study the novels in the series that came immediately before and after, marking them up with a highlighter like a college student preparing for a test. I refer to Mickey’s published material throughout the writing process.
But I don’t write pastiche. I don’t attempt to "do" Mickey Spillane. These are a joint voice, as is the case in any good collaboration. What I attempt to do, and apparently have succeeded to some degree, is stay in character – to be true to Hammer himself.
Most of these unfinished novels were announced at some point during Mickey’s lifetime. So on a basic level, I am a Spillane fan making sure those books finally get published, so they can sit on my bookshelf next to Mickey’s Hammer novels, where they belong.
What is most gratifying about King of the Weeds is that it’s a book Mickey began during our friendship – a book he discussed with me as he was writing it. I knew the ending, for example, because he had told it to me one night in one of his offices in his South Carolina home.
Yes. Late one lonely night, the greatest natural storyteller of mystery fiction spun his yarn for me with gleeful enthusiasm, like a slightly demented camp counselor frightening his wide-eyed charges around a glowing, crackling fire.
Not surprisingly, when I sat down to write it, I remembered the ending of King of the Weeds vividly.
King of Weeds is published by Titan