Willeford Interview One: Don Herron
I Was Looking for Charles Willeford:
All Charles Willeford research begins with Don Herron's pioneering biography and bibliography, Willeford, published in 1997.
Among other things, Don is also an expert in Dashiell Hammett, and has given the Hammett tour in San Francisco since 1977. Herron met Willeford when the latter took that tour in 1984!
His fascinating blog is regularly updated and also houses a relevant article from 1998, "Collecting Charles Willeford." A new and slightly revised version of Herron's book is in the works. (I will update this page when it is released.)
I met Don in Oakland this past April. He brought me a few rare goodies like Off the Wall and Cockfighter Journal to look at before we turned on the tape. Thanks to Cullen Gallagher for transcribing the interview.
Ethan Iverson: Your book is extraordinary. It’s unprecedented that someone known as a crime author got such a lengthy biography so soon after his death. And there can’t be so many literary biographies of any kind where the biographer knew the subject.
Don Herron: I associated with Willeford, in person, for about ten days.
I once saw some article on Boswell and Johnson where someone had figured out that Boswell was in the company of Johnson for 100 days — which doesn’t seem like enough in a way!
But in the super-speeded-up world we’re in, I was with Willeford about ten days. He was here in San Francisco for a couple of visits, and then I went to visit him in Florida. We did correspond and talked on the phone occasionally, as well. I realize this is not an awful lot of time, but I think I got to know him.
So then the question is: How do you present the book on Willeford? My decision was that you’re meeting Willeford with me, so I’m just your surrogate.
I am me, I do have my opinions, but you get to meet him at the same time. That’s kind of what I wanted to do. A friend of mine was reading the book, and he didn’t like it at first — and then he figured out what I was doing, and he’s like, Oh, I’m getting to meet Willeford.
And then Richard Lupoff, a writer of mostly science fiction, lives here in Berkeley, he really likes Willeford stories. He sent me an email that said, “This is the only book I can think of on a writer where there’s no wall standing between me and the writer. It’s like I’m meeting the writer.”
I thought, “Yeah, that’s what I could give the book.” Since most people won’t get the chance, that’s as close to a first-hand experience as I could manage.
Some people who didn’t like my book misunderstand the “me” part of the book. There’s so much “me” in the book because whatever he’s saying is related to me being there. I’m the vessel. Before visiting Willeford I’d never really recorded anybody before, but I figured, “Okay, I better record this stuff.”
Some of it was interview-style questions, but for a lot of it I just put the tape player down when looking through boxes in the garage, and he comes along and says something great. I didn’t get everything that I would have liked to have on the tape, either. People who wanted a traditional biography don’t like it, but that’s just what happened.
You could have people digging through archives and records — your standard kind of biography, like the one Robert Polito did on Jim Thompson. Polito had access to all these records that Thompson’s widow had kept: newspaper articles, stuff on Thompson’s father, and so forth and so on.
With Willeford there isn’t a lot of that stuff. There’s his discharge papers, and various ones related to his time in the military, the Army, and the Army Air Corps. And you can find out probably some of his employment records as a college teacher and some things like that.
And it’s like, okay, this is all interesting, but who is he?
The Wikipedia page on Willeford has all these various dates where he enlists and then he drops out of the army — and then he reenlists, and he drops out and reenlists. I’m looking at this stuff and I think, yeah, this is all well and good, but they never once tell you he’s funny.
He was hysterically funny and they leave that out.
Maybe if someone tried to put that in, someone else on Wikipedia would come along and delete it.
EI: I’ve never made my wife laugh so hard as reading aloud a couple of excerpts of Willeford. One of the things you must do with Willeford is read him aloud. As those simple declarative sentences add up, they take on a cumulative power that’s hard to understand unless you’re really taking in what might be behind each sentence.
DH: At the end of his life, when he was too sick to sit and type, he dictated the new opening for The Way We Die Now to Betsy. He had it fully formed in his mind and just told her, and she typed it.
He was of course a really great public speaker. I mentioned in the book how when he came back to San Francisco for the second trip I set it up so that he would speak to the Maltese Falcon Society, this fan club we had for Hammett and hardboiled.
At that time people had not heard of him: Miami Blues was out just barely a year and New Hope For the Dead wasn’t out yet, so he hadn’t been discovered. Most people had no questions to ask him when he got to the end of that first natural movement in his talk.
I was going to get up and go over and thank him and then we’d just hang out and drink — but then he just kept going because he’d been a classroom teacher, where you have all these students who have nothing to say, or they’re clamming up and you have to kind of pull it out of them. You could see this guy was used to talking.
EI: The ultimate classroom scene is in Miami Blues with the haiku. It’s an extraordinary scene.
DH: He knew that stuff. A lot of his students in his college classes were from other countries. Whatever he is teaching them has nothing to do with their culture and he’s trying to give them a chance, do what he can with them.
EI: I think the structure of your book really works: Just as you were getting to know Willeford, society was getting to know Willeford. It was running parallel. He was truly an unknown writer when you met him. Not even a cult writer.
DH: There was no cult.
EI: For example, that Library of America edition of 50's crime titles has Goodis, Thompson, Highsmith, and Himes. That all makes sense in a way that the inclusion of Willeford’s selection Pick-Up, doesn’t. Before Miami Blues in the 80’s, Willeford would not have been on anyone’s radar as a crime writer. To place him with Goodis, Thompson, Highsmith, and Himes doesn’t really reflect the truth. The other authors had fans who loved crime fiction, but Willeford didn’t, not in the 50's.
DH: Pick-Up was his best selling book of that era, which means it got reprinted three or four times, but whoever would have read it at the time would not have even considered it a crime novel.
He’d been there all along, but who knew?
I met people in Florida who had known him for 20 years, they were with the library system or whatever, and were sitting around talking, “Yeah, Charlie, he’s really funny.”
Yeah, but do you understand that he’s a great writer? Do you understand Burnt Orange Heresy is a great book?
“Nah, nah, he’s funny, he’s a great guy.” There was no sense of what he was doing in that community.
EI: The fact that you’re honest about your interaction with him gives it a greater truth. I’m a total proponent of that Howard Zinn theory that the historian always has an agenda. There’s no history without the influence of the historian.
DH: In my case, I was sold on Willeford, completely sold on him. And I think I was smart to be sold on him based on where he’s gone. He hasn’t been a flash in the pan.
Admittedly, he’s not a huge international bestseller, he probably never will be. But I think his cult will remain steady and people will still keep coming to him.
I could see that pretty much the first time I met him. When I talked to him I said to myself, “Wow! This guy’s really interesting!” And once the books were as good or better than what I sensed they would be, it’s like, “Wow, there’s no argument here.”
There are things in my book I kind of like, like Willeford kidding me about whatever he’s kidding me about. There was this big stack of clippings on the coffee table and I’m looking through them and I come to the one that says it’s a recipe for “Willeford’s Texas Chili” and I say, “Willeford’s Texas Chili?”
He goes, “Yeah, that’s right,” and I look at him and ask, “Have you ever been to Texas?”
And he says, “Of course I’ve been to Texas!”
Because he’d spun so much stuff already, I was jabbing him — nicely.
“Have you been to Texas?”
Who knows with some of that stuff? You get to the point with some of his stories that it’s really hard to tell if they were true or not.
We got to that real early in my relationship with him telling me about Ross Macdonald being “manufactured,” as it were, as a bestseller. I just didn’t believe him, because I’d never heard of that.
EI: That was the first time I read about the conspiracy to get Ross Macdonald elected as the Great Ross MacDonald.
DH: John Leonard, another guy out of Berkeley, worked for KPFA at one point, but then went to New York. He got that going. And he wrote his article about the conspiracy, which is probably the article Willeford had seen.
EI: I think a few generations of crime fiction fans have been a little puzzled about the way MacDonald's been deified like Hammett and Chandler. He’s certainly an enjoyable read, at the same time it’s interesting to know there was a conspiracy to get him elected as the third member.
DH: I started doing the Hammett tour in 77. By the early 80s, I’m kind of fully engaged in the crime fan arena, and even was chairman of Bouchercon in 1982. At that time, that’s all you heard from guys like Joe Gores — and pretty much everybody, else too: the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost — Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald.
The opening of RossMac’s Silver Dagger Award Winner, The Chill, is impressive. When I read that at the time I was like, wow, this is great, if the rest of this book is this good this guy’s better than Hammett, he’s better than Chandler.
But then I read another 40 pages and stopped. The people that set him up with the others are the establishment. They’re definitely the establishment.
I just couldn’t see it, especially after I started reading Chester Himes, particularly the Harlem cycle. Hammett, Chandler, Chester Himes, is where I think it should go. The establishment can’t see it that way, and I think its maybe because Himes’ books are too violent, or maybe it’s the ethnic or culture kind of things in them.
EI: Willeford also thought that Himes was a real master.
DH: Oh, yeah! I think he was, certainly at his best. Of course, they can all have serious missteps, Himes and Willeford both.
You don’t have to read every Willeford. Willeford’s Off the Wall is just hack work. It’s good enough, it’s okay, but you don’t need to read it. Also, Made in Miami a.k.a. Lust Is a Woman is pure hackwork. He’s trying to write a typical sleazy Beacon paperback. You can see him kind of trying to prostitute himself and he just can’t quite do it. . . . Even by trying he’s kind of handicapping himself, so he’s just not going for it. It’s just not there.
EI: It’s been about several years since your book was published. What have you seen, positive or negative, in Willeford reception since?
DH: I’ll usually mention Willeford on my Hammett tours. Some of the hardboiled fans know of him and some don’t. He remains a really hard sell in the typical mystery establishment scenario, especially certain books.
On Patti Abbott’s blog, she says she loves the Hoke Moseley books but doesn’t care for The Burnt Orange Heresy. I’m like, “Oh, how can you not like Burnt Orange Heresy!?” Well, that’s her opinion, and, no offense, she’s welcome to it. But if you like Moseley but not Burnt Orange, you probably aren’t getting everything out of the Moseley’s that’s there to be gotten.
EI: One of my theories about the Hoke Moseley books is that they operate in two planes. You can read them as a fairly straight thriller — in fact they’re blurbed as, “No one can crime a better crime novel than Charles Willeford” — or you can read them as a critique of straight thrillers. They are not really within the genre, they are something else.
DH: They’re at least absurd masterpieces. Like his best books, you can approach them all these different ways with equal success. A lot of these people just want this new private eye novel featuring Blank in Another Case, and that’s fine if that’s what you want — but you aren’t going to necessarily want Willeford.
EI: Do you feel that Willeford’s been an influence?
DH: Kind of, yeah. Of course, the most effective kind of Willefordian thing would be Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction, and he says he didn’t want it to be like crime fiction, he wanted it to be some more like Charles Willeford.
So, in that sense, yeah, some people with talent have gotten what’s there and they’re spinning it in their own direction. I got an email from Ray Banks, one of the current British writers. He congratulated me on the book and said he really liked Willeford. When I read some Banks I noticed he’s got some Willefordian kind of tones there.
EI: What about critical analysis? Have you seen any?
DH: Nah, not that I can think of offhand.
I’m sure you could probably find various little bits of Willeford that he’s borrowed from other writers, to write papers on. I actually asked him about with Pick-Up: the end of the book is taken from the Hammett story “Night Shade.” There’s no question in my mind.
Of course, he didn’t answer. He just went on to something else.
Someone asked me recently about Willeford’s own artwork, especially his paintings, so I asked Betsy. She said the only piece of his artwork she ever saw was the Tab Hunter installation, the arrow through the can of Tab that he entered in that one art show. Otherwise she never saw any of it.
She said she used to ask him about it, but he never answered her, so she finally stopped. This is his wife!
It’s like if he didn’t want to answer you — he wasn’t mean about it, it wasn’t like he looked off at the wall staring angrily or something — he just clammed up.
EI: That’s a good point. I’ve had some telling interactions with older jazz musicians. They wouldn’t necessarily give answers. Sometimes, if you ask an older master a direct question they make it clear that they will never going to tell you the real details of this stuff.
DH: Willeford would answer some things perfectly well, but if he didn’t want to tell you, that was it. If I asked him, in front of our wives, some question I really wanted to know, it was a mistake because he had an audience. If it was me — and if it wasn’t something he didn’t want to tell me, then he wouldn’t tell me — he seemed to be more open, but if he had an audience to entertain, then that’s a whole different thing.
One of the things I’m pretty well convinced of is that he would have been happy doing —living whatever kind of life he would have lived — was just being a prankster. Just playing jokes on people. Writing absurd letters to the editor. I think he would have liked that.
There’s the book that RE/Search did in San Francisco, PRANKS!, and I think they did a sequel. Willeford could have been one of those guys. I think he would have gotten, in some ways, as much pleasure out of it — except somewhere back there in the 40s and 50s that literary thing bit him and he got into writing.
He got seriously into writing at Hamilton Air Force Base which is just way up there in Marin County. He was talking about Beckett and Joyce and whatever, and the other guy in the sergeants staff room with him just said, “Will you shut up? You’re never going to write anything.”
The gauntlet was thrown down, and once he edged in then he just kept going.
Because he wasn’t successful doing it, he’d have runs of four or five years writing, and stop. And then after three or four years off he’d come back and do another four, five, six, or seven year run and stop.
He wasn’t making it in the book world, but he had that urge to keep coming back. Like people say, that anomalous feeling sweeps over you telling that you can be a writer, and in his case, I think, he knew what he was doing.
He was really happy with most of his books. Certainly with something like Burnt Orange Heresy. There’s no doubt in my mind that he understood what he did, knew it was a masterpiece of its kind.
You were asking me about if I was happy with his stature. Most people probably have never heard of Burnt Orange Heresy, but I know it’s a masterpiece. It’s similar to that.
EI: I was thinking about the Tarantino connection. In Pulp Fiction we love all those characters because they are sexy and cool. Even though they’re all killers and do this terrible mayhem, they’re charismatic and powerful. Hoke Moseley doesn’t get that chance to be cool, and neither do Willeford's villains, really.
DH: They’re too buried in that existence, and that’s why Willeford is one of the big Noir guys. They’re loosely Noir, I mean — he doesn’t fall into a lot of the genre conventions. He just sinks you into that everyday kind of thing, particularly in Sideswipe. You’re just like “Oh Man.” Pop Sinkiewicz, what a character.
EI: So depressing!
DH: So depressing, which is what it should be if its noir.
In Noir, particularly in David Goodis, they’re just trapped in the real world. It’s not glamorous. They touch on being glamorous like if there’s a robbery, where you might get a lot of money, or there’s a hot chick or something, but they’re just sunk in the real world.
They’re like every schmuck who never makes it. And maybe these people are happy enough, like people who are born in some small town, they live in the small town their entire lives, work in a factory or something. That’s really depressing!
EI: I When I think of stuff in the wake of Willeford, like Pulp Fiction, it’s very glamorous.
DH: Which is one of the reasons Pulp Fiction was successful.
DH: Whereas Reservoir Dogs, that’s more Willefordian, in a way.
DH: Yeah, because there’s no big glamour with those guys.
EI: It’s so stylized, though, and that’s not really Willeford’s thing, either. He’d never have everyone in the same suit and ties.
DH: He certainly was big on describing clothes. That was one of the schticks he liked, for whatever reason.
EI: What is the jumpsuit all about? The poplin jumpsuit?
DH: It was something people wore down there in Florida, he obviously saw it at one point. I think he had some jumpsuits earlier, he wasn’t wearing them when I met him.
But he had the guayabera. He told me, “You should get one so then you can keep your cigarettes in your shirt pocket.”
I told him I don’t smoke. He’s like, “No, you’ll like them.”
I have actually thought about getting one sometime, eventually.
I think the jumpsuits are something that for him was a symbol of giving up. Hoke Moseley sitting in the chair, just totally knocked down.
EI: You only have to put on one piece of clothing past your underwear.
DH: Yeah, it’s just like that minimalist kind of thing.
EI: Though there is the guy in the jumpsuit in Shark-Infested Custard, too.
DH: Since it was earlier, that was probably sort of like a tryout.
EI: I’ve never run across jumpsuits anywhere really, except in these books. I thought he must have thought they were pretty absurd, but if he wore them himself at some point, then. . . .
DH: Yeah, but I don’t know if he did or not though. I can see Willeford exploring this stuff. There’s just not enough information about it, like how he underwent electroshock therapy early on, so I can see it in his whole thing about the insanity of modern society —that you’re like a mental patient strapped in — that you can only deal with the least detail, no buttons on all these clothes, you just zip a jumpsuit up.
EI: A one-piece.
DH: Yeah, it’s a lot easier in some ways. Willeford would go off on all kinds of riffs.
EI: His characters love to lecture. Just tell people what to do. I don’t get the sense that he himself was really like that, though.
DH: I never got that from him. There was definite back and forth. If you didn’t understand something and he was trying to explain something to you, he’d explain it to you. But he didn’t try to dominate the conversation, and even when he was telling you stuff he would stop and listen.
I left it in there, where actually I’m talking much more than Willeford, who’s hardly talking. Other people are talking, me and my wife at the time, Betsy, and maybe Betsy’s son David, we’re talking talking-talking-talking-talking, two or three pages, then suddenly Willeford comes in with something, and it’s brilliant.
EI: For me the books are undeniably sexist.
DH: I think you could say that, yeah. With Willeford I never got the sense that he was misogynist in any way, though. As far as I can tell, and I say this in the book, he seemed to like women in general, he seemed to get along with women — like I met all these women who worked at the library and they all seemed to like him.
EI: There are a few relatively innocuous pieces in one of the collections, for example the Fred Shaw obituary where he’s talking about all these women and he seems to place everyone on the same plane. It’s not like his asshole main characters who fascinate him in the way they look at stuff in such stark black and white.
DH: In terms of boring lectures: Willeford was in the Army for twenty years, so who knows how many pompous superior officers said one thing after another, just on and on and on and on? With Willeford having to stand there and take it.
But inside, no, he wasn’t taking it, he was getting his material.
It’s kind of like the thing of him being in Greenland: he’s getting all these commendations and he’s doing all this stuff on the base with newspapers and whatever, and it sounds like he’s absolutely making the best of being stuck in Greenland — and then Dennis McMillian told me that at one point Willeford told him that was the most horrible period in his entire life.
Like anyone else would be sitting around depressed out of their mind, doing nothing, and he’s standing up, trying to go for it.
EI: The stuff about Army life is incredible. Your point about Army lectures is entirely validated by the bit in The Woman Chaser when Hudson hires the retired Master Sergeant to manage the car lot.
In your book, I was surprised at how little I Was Looking For a Street and especially Something About a Soldier were discussed.
DH: Some biographers overuse autobiographies as source material, in my opinion. I didn’t see any need to recapitulate them, since anyone can sit down and read them. They’re in print.
EI: That makes sense. If I had written the book myself I would have come down stronger on saying how great those two books are, because I actually rank them with anything in his canon.
DH: I think I say that some people prefer the autobiographies, particularly Something About a Soldier, to the rest of his stuff. But I go easy on maniacal boosterism on any of his books, except possibly Burnt Orange Heresy.
EI: The only other complaint I have about your book, of course, is that it has no index.
DH: Yeah, I know.
EI: But you’re in good company as Duke Ellington’s Music is My Mistress also lacks an index!
DH: I don’t remember what our deadline was at the time, we were trying to get it out for something, and we let the index go. I guess the next edition, which I’m updating as an eBook, may in effect have one, since you’ll be able to do a word search.
In addition, I’m going to put in a few things that Dennis or I have thought of since then. And because some people don’t like the fact that it isn’t a regulation biography, with the ancestors and everything, and some people complained about not having the dates when he goes in and out of the Army, I’m going to put those in.
Betsy had some of the records and she turned them over to Broward County. Because they’re now accessible, various people have assessed them and put them on Wikipedia and everything, so I’m going throw a bunch of them in the book too. But I’m only putting them in to fuck around with the people who whined about it. Willeford isn’t just a clump of dates.
EI: Could anyone go into that Broward archive?
EI: Okay, I might have to do that at some point.
DH: That’s how the guy who did The Second Half of the Double Feature got some of those Willeford pieces. Those stories were in Willeford’s garage, which I cleaned out. Betsy had to decide what to do with the material, and most of it went to Broward.
The only thing I know that’s been misplaced is a memoir of Warren Oates connected to The First Five in Line, the TV pilot Willeford imagined where you have your arm cut-off on camera. He wasn’t able to figure out how to start the book, so at one point he began writing a memoir of Oates, who he met while filming the movie Cockfighter, and that memoir was going to segue into The First Five in Line.
DH: I thought it was there in his stuff that went to Broward. Since I quote some passages in the book, a biographer of Warren Oates is looking for it.
As far I know it was turned over to Broward County but it’s not turning up in the archives. The First Five in Line part is not of great interest, but the little bit of Warren Oates memoir is pretty good.
EI: I was pretty disappointed with The First Five in Line, the part you can read in one of the anthologies. But now I’m curious to look at again after learning that he would have started this foretelling of reality TV with a real-life actor.
Your book in invaluable when trying to make sense of the bibliography, especially the collections. Both The Second-Half of the Double Feature and Writing and Other Blood Sports would be enhanced by introductions explaining exactly what is collected and why.
DH: Yeah, they could have asked me to do it — Betsy could have done it, in theory, or someone else, but without that context neither is quite a whole package.
EI: What is The Second Half of The Double Feature? I didn’t understand what this book is, exactly.
DH: The guy who did it just wanted to do a Willeford book, and so what he did was lift Everybody’s Metamorphosis. Then, with Betsy’s permission, he added more of the stories that went to Broward. For the hardcover he added the previously published poetry volumes and a selection of the unpublished poetry, again from Broward.
EI: It’s so important to have the “Schematics” from Proletarian Laughter back in print, but I didn’t know that they were until our email conversation. I had the paperback of Second Half of the Double Feature and I had no idea the hardback had different contents.
DH: That book is half-assed, in its way. It could have been so much better.
And Dennis McMillan is kind of famous for not doing those little extras which define a book — I practically begged him to do some kind of introduction for his twentieth anniversary anthology Measures of Poison, put in a list of contributors in the back to explain their connection with his press, and nothing. I’m pretty sure that’s why none of the New York presses picked that one up for a trade reprint — it just didn’t come off as a complete book.
EI: I’m going to try to clarify the contents of the anthologies in my blog post, but of course the focus will be the novels.
You seem to admire the 50's and 60's books as well as the later books.
DH: I like most of what he did. I think it’s all interesting, even in the stuff for the Miami newspapers and magazines where he’s kidding about something.
My favorite books are Burnt Orange Heresy and the Hoke Moseleys, though New Hope for the Dead isn’t one of my favorites — that’s like a place holder. Some people like it best, I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s more like a traditional mystery, clues and the puzzle and everything.
EI: It’s also got Grimhaven lurking in the background.
DH: Yeah. Miami Blues is kind of like all new, then New Hope for the Dead is his re-write of Grimhaven — after his agent wisely refuses to submit Grimhaven! He didn’t want to do a series.
Then continuing on, I think Sideswipe’s a masterpiece. The Way We Die Now sets itself up for the next book that he never ended up writing. Particularly the opening and middle, when he gets to the farm, just really great. And that one jumped up with the addition of that front chapter that he dictated, though Betsy was saying she liked the novel without the new intro okay...
EI: ...We’re talking about New Hope for the Dead, I think.
DH: Yeah, the second one. So, New Hope for the Dead, what happened was he grudgingly did that second book that could go on into a third book, a fourth book, a fifth, whatever.
And he didn’t want to do it, but he kind of bit the bullet and did it, and that one, for me, it just doesn’t have as much Willefordian stuff in it. You probably wouldn’t know him, but Bill Mooney, one of our local book sellers, Blue Sky Books, he used to have a bookstore in San Francisco, now he works out of the internet and does antiquarian book fairs, and he was saying New Hope was not working for him up until the point where the guy is encouraging Hoke Moseley to jack off the dog — then Mooney knows he’s reading Willeford.
And that one, for me, is like that. It just doesn’t get going, whereas Sideswipe, you have the whole Hoke Moseley sitting there in the jumpsuit in the chair, unable to move, and then you have the whole gang that he’s just lifted from this earlier novel, No Experience Necessary, and just merges them together. BOOM! Just great.
Then the fourth one I like a lot, too. It needed the new opening, because the editors were telling Willeford that there’s just no sense that these characters on the farm are menacing, no sense that readers should even be worried about Hoke going to the farm — and I agree with the editors. Without that, it just wouldn’t have been as good a book.
So, Willeford was really happy with the fourth Hoke. One of the last writers’ conferences he went to, Elmore Leonard was there, and they’re talking.
Willeford’s telling him about cutting the baggy from the asshole of the dead Haitian and Elmore Leonard, his current one he has the guy sitting on the toilet with a bomb underneath which they stole for one of the Lethal Weapon movies. They’re swapping the gross details — of course Willeford is grosser, it’s hard to beat him when he was going for it.
EI: It’s the matter-of-factness with which he delivers the outrageousness which makes it so compelling. The Shark-Infested Custard is very strong that way.
DH: I’m the one who edited it for the modern appearance.
EI: Thank you! I think it’s a masterpiece.
DH: Oh, yeah. I do, too, which is why I thought it really important to get it out there. And you can see why no one ever published it before, right? What would they have done with it?
He knew it was a masterpiece, and no one wanted it.
EI: The ending is so strange in The Shark-Infested Custard. It’s a true nihilist moment.
DH: That’s his big thing. Nothing.
EI: The insane laughter of the demented just echoing in nothing. Makes me think of an early collection I didn’t connect with as much, The Machine in Ward Eleven, but that seemed to be one of his bigger books at the time. Is that true?
DH: Yeah, it sold reasonably well, and it became one of his few books that was in any way collectable.
When I met him, not too many of his books were worth some money. Proletarian Laughter was worth about twenty bucks, not because of the contents, but because it was part of the Alicat set of thirty or forty items, to assemble a complete set. The Machine in Ward Eleven was worth about ten or fifteen dollars because it was packaged as science-fiction. When I told Willeford that I had found a copy of The Woman Chaser for eleven dollars, Willeford said, “Gee, I’m sorry you had to spend so much money for it.” Probably now it is worth three or four hundred dollars. I honestly don’t know if he would have ever believed he would have gotten to the cult status he has now.
So, what else do you like?
EI: I like The Difference more than you seem to.
DH: I don’t like that one too much, though it’s got some good stuff in it. I can almost see the “write one page a day” attitude that I find in someone like John D. MacDonald. If you went to a party at John D. MacDonald’s he would wander off and type some and then come back: that explains his books.
EI: With The Difference and Burnt Orange Heresy I feel invited to take up a callous opinion of the hero in a way I don’t in Woman Chaser or Cockfighter.
The Difference stars a knowledgable young buck’s journey into manhood, who’s an amoral person. I’m more comfortable there than in Cockfighter, which has a very bizarre temperature. It’s not really clear what Willeford wants me to think about Frank Mansfield — which is probably exactly what he intended, maybe why he thought it was his greatest book.
DH: That was definitely his favorite book. When he introduced himself to me it was the first book he mentioned. Also it was the first book he sent me. He sent me his ex-wife’s copy, in fact. It’s more a general literary novel, a “real novel,” as opposed to one of these more Bukowski-esque meta fictions.
EI: The idea of having a silent character is very distinctive. He gets to have his cake and eat it too: the silent character is lecturing at us the whole time.
DH: Pick-Up is also very different than most of his stuff. I don’t know if it is one of my favorite books, but I think it works really well. I like how everyone has an opinion about the ending, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I had to go back and re-read it,” or, “Aargh, that ruined it for me.” Willeford, with some pride in his technique, told me every clue in the book builds up to it.
EI: With all of his books, the more you read, the more they all make sense. You can read Burnt Orange Heresy once, then read a bunch of other Willeford, and then go back to Burnt Orange Heresy and start to understand the message.
DH: And that’s why I think Willeford is a major author. Willeford wanted to keep going, he was hitting that new level of being accepted, finally, and he had other things he wanted to say, and he realized he could do something he wanted to do, but you can see him, at some point in there, he got to a point where he felt, I did it.
He could have stopped.
It’s not like Stephen King or Danielle Steele or somebody — no matter how bad the stuff gets they’re gonna do it until they drop, and it’s not like they need the money! It’s just product.
Whereas with Willeford you can tell he did exactly when he wanted to do. For The Difference, he writes a Western, but it’s still him writing. I like the scene where the guy shoots the Indian. That’s the great Willefordian moment in that one. Pow!
In the paperback original market of the 1950s he doesn’t write for the market, he writes in what was obviously his natural form, the psychotic interface. The point of view character is psychotic, and people never quite understood it until Miami Blues, when Willeford told the reader Freddy Frenger is a blithe psychopath in the first sentence.
Suddenly, “Open sesame!”
And everybody’s coming in, “Oh, yeah, Willeford, he’s great!” “Nobody writes a psychotic mind better than Charles Willeford.”
EI: But it was right there from High Priest of California, in high gear.
DH: It’s in high gear, it’s absolutely completely established, his voice, and it didn’t take off. And most people never got it, and a lot of the people who don’t like him,that still comment on him now, don’t like him because the characters are so unpleasant.
It’s kind of like, yeah. You should be reading something else, something a little more sedate.
I think it would be really nice if Betsy wrote, if not a full biography, then a really long memoir, as many details as she can remember. Betsy’s a really good writer. She was an Editorial writer for the Miami papers for a long time and a much better letter writer than Willeford was. She makes everything interesting, she has a witty turns of phrase. Betsy should be able to write a really valuable book.
EI: I hope that happens, and I’m looking forward to the update of your biography as well.
I Was Looking for Charles Willeford: