ALLIGATOR MAN—BILL CRIDER
This is another interview where full disclosure is required. Bill Crider and I have been friends since our early days of mystery fandom and fanzines. We both broke into professional fiction writing in the mid-eighties, both in (different) men’s adventure series paperbacks published under pseudonyms. Since those days, we’ve continued our friendship through years of publishing successes under our own names, mystery conventions, tales of recreational running, and shared collecting obsessions...
If Bill Crider was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, what biographical details would accompany the fuzzy photo of you?
That fuzzy photo would probably have been taken in April 1970 when the student body at The University of Texas at Austin learned about the invasion of Cambodia. There was a huge rally on campus, and I was caught up in the middle of it because the English building was right next to the mall where a giant demonstration was held. I was outside the English building and headed for the mall to see what was going on, when every cop in Austin marched up in full riot gear. I heard later that snipers were stationed on state buildings on the street to the capitol in case students started marching in that direction with intent to riot. Helicopters chattered overhead. Good times, good times. As for the biographical details, “Born: Mexia (that’s Muh-HAY-uh), Texas, long ago. Nearsighted. Can read and write a little. Scrawny, but game.”
We’ve been friends for a long time, but I’ve never know the origin of the connection between Bill Crider and alligators, so now is the time to spill. How did it all start?
It all began with an article about books about alligators in the sewers I wrote for a fanzine—Andy Jaysnovitch’s, The Not-So Private-Eye. People liked the article, I guess, so they started sending me alligators and giving them to me at conventions. I have dozens of them now, the latest having just arrived from Cap’n Bob Napier only last week. It never ends.
Before we dig into your writing career, let’s talk about book collecting. What makes books important to you?
I first loved books because I loved reading, which somehow led me to loving books as physical objects. I didn’t want to let go of the ones I loved, so I didn’t. What I have is more of an accumulation, and it’s a lot of books. A lot.
How long have you been collecting?
Things started getting bad around 1966, when I decided I wanted all the first printings of John D. MacDonald’s paperback originals. They were easy enough to find in those days, and they led me to decide maybe I needed to collect crime and mystery paperback originals. Which led to, well...you know.
How many genres do you collect?
Mystery and crime, and SF to a lesser extent. And some sleaze. And some books just because of the covers. It’s a sickness, or as Nicholas Basbanes put it, a gentle madness.
What is the heart of your collection?
I’d have to say my Harry Whittington set. I have just about every paperback he ever wrote, and I’m looking for the other two or three. They absolutely never turn up. I got many of the ones I own because Harry himself sent them to me many a year ago. He was a great guy.
How do you store and preserve the books?
They’re on my shelves, with no special care except a few are in bags. There’s not really much you can do to save paperbacks, which are slowly oxidizing themselves into oblivion. I’m just going to enjoy them now and let others worry about what happens to them after I’m gone.
What do you look for in a current book before adding it to your collection?
I do have a few current books, but mostly I buy them, read them, and send them on their way. Except for books by people I know, and that’s a lot of people. I even have hardbacks by people I know. Did I mention it’s a sickness?
Are there books you pass on to Friends of the Library or other sources, or all the books in your collection permanent additions?
I do pass on books to the local Friends for their ongoing book sale. I get a lot of review copies, and many of these go to the Friends after I’ve read them or at least looked them over. I occasionally pass on a book to someone I think I will enjoy it. That’s about it.
Your history with the men’s adventure genre began with one of the most iconic characters in the genre. How did the situation come about?
The husband of a wife in a little writing group I was in said he thought we could write a Nick Carter book. He managed the local Allied Van Lines, and he said all the truck drivers were reading Nick Carter, which he described as James Bond for truck drivers. To make a very long story short, we did write one of the books and somehow managed to sell it. The editor loved it and wanted more, but by the time we’d done a couple of outlines, that editor was gone. The new editor wasn’t impressed and hired a several people (Bob Randisi was one of them, I think, and probably Bob Vardeman) to do a good many of the books around that time.
How did it influence your career?
Probably not much, other than letting me know I could write fiction an editor would buy. That’s important.
What were the lessons learned from your debut novel?
From the Nick Carter novel, not much. It was a thrill to see it in print, and I learned I loved the feeling of holding a book I’d written. I also learned editors don’t always stick around for long and a new editor might not like what a previous one liked. It’s as true now as it was then.
You also wrote three novels in the men’s adventure style series, The M.I.A. Hunter. What was the experience like and have you contributed to other ‘house name’ series to which you can contractually admit?
That was a great experience. Steve Mertz sent me an outline for each one, and I wrote the book based on it. Aside from that, I had all the freedom I could’ve wanted. I always tried to write the best book I could, no matter what genre, and I’m proud of the work I did on those. Steve may well have reworked the books, but I didn’t read them after publication, so I don’t know. My other house name work is all under the rose, although some of it’s no big secret, as anyone with access to Wikipedia can discover.
You’re known as mystery writer, but you’ve also written a number of westerns and horror novels. How did you come to jump genres, and do you have a favorite?
When I started writing, I told my agent I’d always wanted to write a western. She said, “What are you waiting for?” So, I wrote several for M. Evans. Dell picked up two others (Outrage at Blanco and Texas Vigilante), and those have done very well in reprint from Brash Books. The horror novels came about the same way. I told my agent I had an idea for a horror novel, and she said, “What are you waiting for?” She sold four or five of them to Zebra, as by my Evil Twin pseudonym, Jack MacLane. My heart’s always been with the mystery field, though, and that’s where I’ve had the most success.
You’ve written a number of different mystery series. How did you come to diversify?
I discovered I had too many ideas for just one series, and I’d always wanted to write about the small-time academic world I inhabited. “What are you waiting for?” I really had fun writing those books. And I’d always loved private-eye novels. “What are you waiting for?” The Truman Smith series is dear to my heart, but readers didn’t agree, I guess. Thanks to my agent, who got me the job, I also got the chance to write a private-eye novel with Humphrey Bogart as a featured character. It’s one of my better books, though nobody has heard of it—We’ll Always Have Murder is the title.
What is your process when beginning a new book? Is it different for different books?
I just sit down and start writing. That’s the way it’s been for just about every book. So far it’s worked out for me.
When asked, what advice do you share about writing and what do you think has the most impact?
I don’t know what has any impact, but my advice is the same all the time, a variation on the advice of the great Robert A. Heinlein: You have to write, you have to write every day, and you have to submit what you write. I don’t know if anybody ever listens to me.
What was a book you loved as a child?
There are many. Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss were big favorites because I love rhyme and rhythm. And then there were the Bobbsey Twins, Bomba the Jungle Boy, John Carter of Mars, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew...There seems to be a theme here—mystery and adventure. I haven’t changed a bit.
What were the books you read to your children?
That was mostly Judy’s job. I was the one who’d lie in the floor in their bedrooms after they were put to bed and make up stories to tell them. Cubby the Bear was a big favorite.
What book made you want to be a writer?
Just about everything I ever read. I really wanted to be Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, but that didn’t work out.
What is your favorite book to movie adaptation?
Tie between The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.
What book would you like to see as a movie?
Anything I’ve written would suit me just fine.
What imaginary place from a book would you want to live?
*If you don't know where Barsoom is look it up immediately. You've got some great reading ahead...
What genre would you read if you were limited to one?
Probably mysteries. Those are what I read most of, anyway.
Is there a book you’ve returned to again and again?
Anything by Ross Thomas and Alistair MacLean. I’ve read Catch-22 probably more times than any other. Catcher in the Rye is right up there, along with a few others.
What fictional character(s) would you like to have a beer with?
Hap and Leonard.
*Two outrageous characters created by Joe R. Lansdale...
What was the last novel to make you laugh?
Joe R. Lansdale’s Rusty Puppy, just a week or so ago.
What was the last novel to make you cry?
It’s been a while. Probably The Fault in our Stars. I’m a big John Green fan.
What are you reading now?
The Soak by Patrick McLean.
What is currently keeping you working at the keyboard?
I’m working on what may well be the final Sheriff Dan Rhodes novel, working title That Old Scoundrel Death.
Thx, Bill for taking a turn in the interrogation room. I appreciate your friendship and humor...Be sure to take care of those VBKs (Very Bad Kittens), or are they taking care of you?
FOR MORE ON BILL CRIDER AND THE VBKs CLICK HERE