Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

26 April 2008

Welcome Aboard Our New Nostalgia Vehicle

In my salad days, back in those antediluvian times when men wore fedoras and gas was 25 cents a gallon, the worlds of journalism and fiction were pretty much separate and well defined. Good journalism dealt only with documented, provable facts regarding the human condition, with spin left to the editorial writers. Good fiction began with spin, or the writer’s imaginative interpretation of the human condition, laid against what was generally accepted as fact. And — in the ultimate bottom line — the best, most persuasive fiction was fact, artfully disguised.

Which leads me to an old saying I just made up: If you want to know what really went down at a given point in history, read fiction written by a man or woman who has walked the walk. No matter if it deals with a Roman legionnaire in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, an ingenue in 1880 Florida, or Wall Street broker during the Great Depression, the fiction takes on compelling reality if the author is a careful researcher who has served as a soldier in any war, or has grown up among naive Southern belles, or at one time or another smothered in crashing stocks. Human nature remains the same and is the spine of any successful fiction. The only things that change are societal problems, locale, idiom, folkways, mores, and costumery. So it follows that the credible author needs to be an astute human being who has either lived all the rest or looked carefully into it.

As mentioned in last week’s blog, we’re introducing a nostalgia feature — a department that will root around in the past, both recent and ancient, via samplings from the works of a contemporary American novelist. Since I’m somewhat contemporary and a card-carrying American novelist, and especially since I can quote the material without dickering with agents and/or predatory fee-snatching publishers, the samplings will be the first chapter from each of my own works — 16 novels written over a period of 45 years.

To those novels I’ve brought 86 years of walking the walk. My boyhood was spent in Depression-haunted Buffalo, NY. My starry-eyed idealism was wrenched from me during my soldiering in history’s largest, bloodiest war. Through many postwar years I struggled to be a decent husband, father, and breadwinner, when all I wanted to do was drink away the dreadful things I’d seen and done. My career coursed through newspaper and magazine journalism, commercial radio news, congressional politics, and corporate public relations and advertising, and despite my secret trysts with Demon Rum, I publicly maintained the Ozzie Nelson facade. In mid-career, after I finally managed to put the cork in the bottle and keep it there, I discovered the marvelous therapy of the novel. I found that when I fictionalized my experiences the burden of my memories eased, became less onerous. And I was cheered to find that I could actually laugh at some of it, and at least two of my books surprised me by turning up unabashedly comedic.

Since these 16 novels provide a weird kind of window overlooking a panorama of 20th Century American life, I think that maybe you, dear nostalgia fan, might enjoy reading these chapters and shooting me some comments or questions. The series begins with my second novel, The Expendable Spy, because the first, The Blue Max, serves best to wind up the series as the Alpha and Omega of my career as a novelist.

The Expendable Spy was written in 1963-1964, as the result of a strong urging from my then-agent, Lurton Blassingame, to novelize my experiences as a counter-intelligence agent in Nazi Germany during the collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich. He and my then-editor at E.P. Dutton, the late Peter Prescott, (who had taken a big chance and acquired The Blue Max despite its dismissal by other publishers as a sure loser) insisted on the novel in face of my hesitation to write a non-fiction book detailing the subject. My reluctance stemmed from (1) the fact that the US Army had not yet declassified the Top Secret case and (2) I feared I couldn’t write it without coming across as an egocentric, glory-grabbing horse’s patoot. Too many great and courageous individuals, both American and German, had risked their lives in my behalf and I wasn’t about to reveal their identities and play the Big I-Am.

“So,” grumped Prescott, “change the names and disguise the facts enough to keep the Army and your pals off your back. Don’t argue with me. Write the damned thing and have it on my desk by October.”

“What if some of the bad guys see though me and haul me into court?” I whined.

“Pray that they do,” murmured Blassingame. “What better publicity?”

So I wrote the damned thing and had it on Prescott’s desk by October.

I knew I’d pulled it off when (1) it was awarded a special Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America, and (2) about six months after it was published, I got a letter from one of my key German collaborators. Wrote she: “I’ve read your book, Hansel, and I was secretly thrilled to relive all that again — especially since it all worked out so well!”

To see how the novel starts out, click here.

Jack

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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