A life of many hues // Memories of John D. MacDonald; [CITY Edition]
St. Petersburg Times. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Jan 4, 1987. pg. 1.D
-John D. MacDonald, who died Dec. 28 at the age of 70, was a prolific author and a Floridian who loved his state. Florida was the backdrop for many of his writings and the home of his most famous character, Travis McGee, whose career was chronicled in a series of novels, each with a color in its title. The following vignettes give a picture of Mr. MacDonald as drawn for St. Petersburg Times readers by some of his friends - and some of his fans.
An invisible author By Elmore Leonard
Thirty years ago, at a time when I was writing Westerns and my agent was trying to get me into The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s - magazines that insisted on formula plotting - I saw John D. MacDonald writing his own kind of story for Cosmopolitan, then a general audience magazine.
I felt a strength of character in this man who would seem to be doing it his way or not at all. He was writing to please himself, casting his stories with real, everyday kinds of people and writing in a simple, straightforward style, with never a hint of pretension, never overwriting.
And I remember thinking, That’s what I want to do someday.
I also remember from that time John quoted as saying that you had to write at least a million words before you knew what you were doing. This was not encouraging when you’ve written only a few hundred thousand, in your spare time, and face the prospect of more years of learning. But John did not pull punches. Write a million words and see if you’re any good. That’s the fact of it.
We began corresponding in 1982 - after I finally worked up the nerve to write him - and mentioned in my first letter having the strange feeling, after 30 years of writing, that I was just beginning.
John said the feeling is a familiar one. ``The learning process, thank God, continues. I can still read old stuff and know at once how I could have done it better, given another shot at it. The college age people look at me with incredulity when I tell them I am still trying to make the stuff better. If there was such a thing as total objectivity there would be no bad books written or published. ... I tell them I am trying to make the author even more invisible, and keep the words and sentences shorter without triteness.``
You can see in John’s work that he continued not only to make it better, throughout an astonishing number of titles, he broadened his scope to include mainstream novels. The most notable one in my judgment is One More Sunday, a fascinating venture into electronic religion.
What makes his work consistently superior - besides his ability to move the plot and keep you turning pages - is the fact that it shows a definite attitude about people and what’s going on in the world. He expresses a point of view through his characters, all the while keeping the author ``ever more invisible`` - which is one of the more difficult aspects of writing fiction: not allowing the reader to be distracted by the writing. At this, John was a master. I would vote him, also, the best first-person writer I’ve ever read. Travis McGee’s ``I`` was never intrusive.
In September 1986 he wrote that he was ``winding up this and that`` in preparation for his bypass surgery. ``There seems to be a lot of it going around. Michener just had one. I wouldn’t want to feel left out.``
- Elmore Leonard’s novels include Stick and Glitz. His latest is Bandits (Arbor House, $17.95).