Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction by Max Collins
2023-09-09

From a young age, Spillane loved to read. “When I was a little kid,” he said, “we had moved into a school where there was a library that ran underneath the windows–and I remember the teacher saying, ‘Children, someday you’ll be able to read this book’ and she held up a copy of Moby-Dick. And I said to the teacher, ‘I like this book!’ She says to me, ‘You certainly didn’t read this book!’ And I said, ‘Call me Ishmael.’ She could never get over that!”


“There are only a certain number of basic plots,” Spillane said. “All stories are an elaboration on these plots and a good background in writing pulp fiction gives you the benefit of stockpiling these elaborations in your mind plus the ability to twist them into elaborations not yet used.” *You have to learn the rules and expectations, so you can break them.


Late in life, Spillane recalled his comic-book writing days fondly: “They were the happiest days of my life. I could walk anywhere and nobody knew who I was.” Fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


Sometimes, you just need a lucky break. After a friend took Spillane’s manuscript of I, The Jury to Jack McKenna of Duenewald Printing Corporation who worked with Fawcett Publications, in an intent for McKenna to pass it on to Roscoe Fawcett, McKenna couldn’t find the time to read the manuscript. His wife, however did. “You like detective stories,” McKenna told his wife. “Read this one.” The next morning, McKenna’s wife shook Jack awake. “Read it! This is different.” She read the entire thing the night before. McKenna would become Spillane’s agent.


Intentionally, Spillane never gave a description of his narrator, Mike Hammer. “If you describe a guy as being six-foot-two, stalwart, big-muscled and dark haired,” Spillane said in 1998, “how can a guy that’s short and fat think that he’s the hero in the story? He can’t do that. But if [Hammer’s] not described, that guy can be the hero in his own mind.”


Publisher Victor Weybright said, “[T]he literary world abounds in ruined careers in which a poor second book erases all the promise and luster of an initial success.” This came after Spillane showed his second manuscript, For Whom the Gods Would Destroy to the publishers. It wasn’t a bad book, they insisted, just wasn’t the right timing to publish it after how successful I, The Jury had been. So they didn’t reject it, else McKenna would have been able to sell it to someone else. Instead, they shelved it. McKenna’s lack-of-experience showed, because Spillane was given no compensation for this decision.


During a conversation between Mike Hammer and his creator, Hammer said to Spillane, “Writing’s a good racket, Mickey, all you need is an idea and a typewriter and you’re in business.”


Use what’s unique to you to create something unique to others. The author writes, “Spillane combined his eclectic reading (including pulp fiction) and life experiences (particularly wartime) with a direct knowledge of the elemental appeal of the comic book into a new style of fiction that excited and pleased a wide swath of the reading public.


“A perfect book is written with the climax on the last word of the last page,” Spillane said. “…If you took the last word away, you wouldn’t know what the book was about.” His editor, didn’t believe him, so Spillane bet him a thousand bucks that “if he submitted the new Hammer, Vengeance is Mine!, without the last word, the novel would make no sense. “I turned it in without the last word on the last page,” Spillane said grinning. “He said ‘What was the word, what was the word!’ I said, ‘Give me the thousand bucks.’ He gave me the thousand bucks–I gave him the word.” The last sentence of Vengeance is Mine!, of course, is “Juno was a man!”


The critics didn’t like Spillane’s use of sex and violence in his books, so he used their reviews for his gain. “I have gotten the worst reviews in the world,” he said. “So we made this big ad out of the bad reviews, quoting from them. Then underneath we’d have a line like, this book sold six million copies. The top of the ad said, Mickey Spillane says about his new book, ‘I hope this one gets lousy reviews.’”


Spillane quickly became one of America’s favorite writers. At a restaurant in Florida Keys where Hemingway’s picture hung up on the wall, Spillane stopped by and was asked for his photo to go up on the wall. On his next visit, Hemingway insisted, “Take him down or take me down.” And down Hemingway went. Later, after Hemingway bad mouthed a Spillane in Bluebook magazine, Spillane was asked what he thought of Hemingway and he responded, “Hemingway who?”


Victor Saville, a movie director, approached Spillane to make his books into movies. “I arranged a meeting with Spillane,” Saville said. “But not in an office, that was not the Spillane way. He insisted we meet under the clock at the Pennsylvania Railway Station.” A classic detective move, I guess? Their agreement was originally a 50/50 split of the profits, until Columbia Pictures offered Spillane $140,000 cash for four novels. Saville matched the offer, so Spillane went with Saville. Though Spillane chose the right partner, he passed on the better deal. “If Spillane had stuck to my original proposal,” Saville said, “he would have made half a million dollars as his share of the first two pictures.” Apparently, Spillane never really forgave Saville for that, even though it was kind of Spillane’s fault. Part of the deal allowed Saville to have first rights on any new Spillane novels as movies for five years. It didn’t seem like a lot, and to Spillane at the time it didn’t seem to matter, but it would cause a load of headaches in the future for Spillane. Two lessons: Know what you’re signing away and don’t sign away your future.


Jane Spillane, Mickey’s third wife, said in an interview:

We would be asleep with nothing but silence in the middle of the night when I would be shaken out of nowhere from the rustling of Mickey getting out of bed, throwing on a lamp and grabbing a sticky note to write down ideas. No matter how many ideas occurred to him in the middle of the night, he would get up every time, turn on the lamp, and write them down on a sticky note. Then a book would result from his midnight musings.

Lesson: Books are made out of sticky notes (Anne Lamott uses index cards)


Mickey was always remodeling a house he and Jane lived in during his later years because “The guy who built it owned a lumber yard, but he didn’t own a level.” I thought that was a creative way to say it was crooked or it was a shoddy job. You could say something similar about someone who wants to write, but maybe uses basic words, “He liked to write, but it seemed like he didn’t own a dictionary,” or something like that.


In December of 1972, speaking to Esquire magazine about his clothes, Spillane had an important lesson on spending money: “I own two suits and a sports jacket. Clothes mean little to me.” But he owned “the best driving gear, the best flying gear in the world.” “Clothes,” he said, “were just something you wear in the city.” lesson: spend money on the things you care about.

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