Tell me about how you write in his voice.
I get asked this quite often, and one of the things they ask me is “Are you intimidated?” because he was my hero when I was growing up. I took this stuff like vitamins. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write like Mickey Spillane.” Some of that is already in there. My emphasis is to try to do the character right. And it's first-person. So if I do the character right, I don’t have to write like Mickey Spillane because Mike Hammer is writing the story.
But sometimes I do feel like there have been a few supernatural moments. I was sitting in my living room watching some of the crazy political stuff that’s on. I was working on the book, and I was about three chapters away from the ending. I grabbed a piece of paper, and the ending came to me. The last three paragraphs of The Goliath Bone is so pure Mickey Spillane, and it really did just arrive. I guess he wanted to write the last three or four paragraphs of the last Mike Hammer book.
What’s the first moment that you remember when you were going from working with him to doing something he was not part of -- when you took that first step off the diving board?
One of the nice things about the reviews for the books I have done for Titan is they’ll say “We can’t tell where Spillane stops and Collins starts.” I have always taken Mickey’s, say, 100 pages that I have to turn into 300 pages, and I don’t plop his 100 pages down and then write 200 pages. I take that 100 pages and I expand it, I look for scenes he skipped, and I put some of my English on the ball. I do more description than he does. I approach it as a collaboration. I don’t go in like I have been given eight of the ten commandments and I have to think the last two up and I gotta do God's voice. That’s not the deal. It’s that he said, “Max will know what to do.”
That’s quite a vote of confidence.
That's what he told his wife: “Round everything up, and he’ll know what to do.” I figure if he believed in me, I believe in me. I just try to make them the best books I can. Because I'm melded in there with his work, when I do take over, a couple of things happen. One is I have been in that world, so I just maintain that kind of dual voice, and the other one is that it’s almost like the way a rib eye steak is marbled with fat, you can't separate it. And that’s what you want it to be.
There are some elements of my work that get in there. I think there’s more humor. There’s plenty of humor in Mickey, but I think my Hammer is a little bit more of a wise guy. I can’t keep it out because that’s me. It’s supposed to be a collaboration.
There are certain elements that readers expect to find in hard-boiled novels. How do you balance staying within those expectations and breaking them to surprise the reader?
I have to admit that I don’t really sit down and say “It's a noir novel, so we gotta have a femme fatale, we gotta have this or that.” I just try to think of a good story, and because I'm in that noir context these are things that come along. You do want to play with people's expectations -- sometimes the obvious femme fatale isn't a femme fatale. One of the Titan books, I won’t say which one, seems to be leading up to Mike Hammer killing the bad guy and then he instead figures out that someone else has killed the bad guy and goes after that person. When he catches up with the person who killed the bad guy, he says “I just wanted to thank you for saving me the trouble.” You play with the expectations, have a little fun with it. And Mickey was so good on endings that you really have to write toward that ending. There's no extra chapter.
My wife Barb, who writes the Barbara Allen books with me, always says there's no Perry Mason scene at the end where Perry explains [everything] to Della and Paul -- and Paul says “Perry, why’d you have me drop a buffalo over the Grand Canyon from a helicopter?” You don’t get that because Mickey wanted it to be like a joke. There's a punchline and you’re out. He had great writing strategy, and I think I have learned a lot of his writing strategy.
When I'm doing an action scene it's pure Mickey Spillane, because that’s where I learned to write them. But otherwise I like to think that there’s a mixture of [Dashiel] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler and James M. Cain and all these people I grew up on, and then I like to think there is some originality in them too.