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February 17, 2010

Same Vineyard, Different Grapes

From the desk of Craig McDonald

“First novel” and “debut novel” are often treated as synonymous terms.

More often than not, they really aren’t.

Certainly it wasn’t so in my case. Like many published novelists whom I’ve come to know, I had my share of manuscripts behind me before my “debut novel” saw the light of day.

Long about 2005, casting around for something that might stick — might finally make some publishing house editor take notice — I hit upon this idea for a novel about the stolen and still-missing head of the Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

In summary format, Head Games seems…quirky: Crime novelist and sometimes screenwriter Hector Lassiter inherits Pancho’s skull and a world of trouble. Soon, Hector and Bud Fiske, a young poet sent to interview Hector for True Magazine, are being pursued by Yale frat boys, murderous banditos and various arms of the federal government. It’s a foot-to-the-firewall chase in a ’57 Bel Air across the long-gone expanse of Lost America.

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Despite it’s rather blackly comic, Kerouacian pedigree, Head Games was a finalist for the Edgar, Anthony, Gumshoe and Crimespree Magazine awards. It was sold into translation in several countries, and — most cool this — it was picked up by First Second for adaptation as a graphic novel.

Head Games was the first installment in a cycle of Hector Lassiter novels. The third, Print the Legend, was just released by Minotaur Books.

In Print the Legend, Hector travels to Sun Valley, Idaho in 1965 to investigate the circumstances of Ernest Hemingway’s death and uncovers an all too real campaign by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to spy on, and, in some cases, to destroy many of America’s foremost authors and poets.

As I write this, we’re putting finishing touches on the fourth Hector Lassiter novel, Roll the Credits (Minotaur Books, winter 2011), a World War II tale centered on a sinister German filmmaker.

At the same time, artist Kevin Singles is at work on Head Games, the graphic novel.

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Those aware of the coming graphic novel often ask about the process of adapting my “debut novel” to a visual format.

From my perspective, it’s not the long reach some seem to think it must be.

At the most elementary level, I tend to a very visual writer. Before I realized I don’t have the chops, there was a time I thought I’d be an illustrator. I started out down that path before transitioning to writing. Even so, I tend to write to images.

As a fiction author, I record the story I see in my head. I tend to think in terms of dialogue. I toggle between the points-of-view of my characters as they kibitz. I see them in close-ups, wide-shots and I see settings in establishing or tracking shots.

On a much deeper level, however, the Lassiter novels are actually constructed around the creative process; around artistic urges. Hector is popularly known as “the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives.” He moves among a sea of other writers, filmmakers, painters and photographers.

The Lassiter novels — pulp-lit secret histories — explore the artistic tradition and romanticism as the clandestine catalyst for real events. They also entwine with the visual arts at several elemental levels.

In Head Games, and its sequel, Toros & Torsos, Hector visits the sets of the Orson Welles film noir classics Touch of Evil and The Lady From Shanghai. The action in those books echoes that of the films…or maybe the films’ scenarios anticipate the dark arc of Hector’s life. It’s difficult — by design — to chick-and-egg it.

Art — primarily painting and photography — is the dark heart of Toros & Torsos. That novel explores the increasingly compelling contention surrealist art actually “inspired” and shaped the infamous 1947 mutilation murder of would-be actress Elizabeth Short, forever known to tabloid history as “the Black Dahlia.”

The theory goes that Elizabeth Short’s murder was a real-world evocation of the surrealist-invented game, “Exquisite Corpse.” That charmingly-named parlor game found surrealist artists engaging in blind collaborations on folded-over sheets of paper to fashion arresting, even grotesque triptych-style illustrations.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. Speaking as a writer, I’ll grudgingly confess there’s too often some piercing truth to that cliché.

The novel and the graphic novel are very different beasts.

The great danger in adapting a novel into a graphic format is ending up with a sea of word-balloon bracketed talking heads, yammering on. So you’re always looking for ways to change the camera angle, so to speak. You look for new ways to shorthand matters through visual means. All that prose you spent all that time polishing and honing goes straight out the window.

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On the other hand, you can do some other things: in my case, because the series was largely written when I wrote the script for the Head Games graphic novel, I took the opportunity to creep in some elements from the other novels. I layered in some characters who figure in Hector novels already written but not yet printed. Call it Head Games, the “director’s cut.”

James Sallis has a nifty phrase for it: “Same vineyard, different grapes.”

Having now adapted a second, non-Lassiter novel into a graphic novel script, I can see real advantages for novelists in attempting to recast their own stories through the prism of the graphic novel.

You learn to pare closer. You find means to communicate information with an image — a montage of images — that would never occur to you when you can just put it across by throwing words at all that white paper.

You learn to paint better pictures in your readers’ minds.

I wrote the story of Head Games; the characters are the children of my imagination. But even at this early stage of the game, looking at Kevin Singles’ first sketches of the world I saw in my mind, I can feel my own firmly-imbedded take on all that falling into eclipse under Kevin’s version of that world.

One of my favorite crime novelists, James Ellroy, has an oft-quoted phrase he offered up when asked about the experience of turning his novels over to filmmakers: “My book, their movie.”

I see now Head Games and Print the Legend are my novels, but as Hector moves into the domain of illustration, it’s Kevin Singles’ world…I just get to write a few words in it.


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