Tuesday, November 10, 2009
I was raised in a Quaker family, and grew up protesting nuclear weapons in Times Square back in the Fifties (remember 'Ban the Bomb'? That was me, a naive six year old, holding one of those signs). When I graduated from Syracuse University in 1968, the war in Vietnam was raging, and so was my generation. We truly believed we could change the world, bring peace and prosperity and justice to all, and—well, you know how all that turned out.
Two decades later, after working so hard to change the world with so little success, I finally concluded that presenting the “truth” as I saw it didn't always work, if ever. Sometimes, I was beginning to realize, good storytelling may be a better way to reach people than on-the-nose reality. Or even gently presented reality laced with humor, the way the late great Art Buchwald mastered this skill with his political satires. Having taken my best shot at doing good without much success, I decided to try my hand at doing well, or at least making a living as a writer. I moved to Hollywood, and soon became a successful studio writer. Not successful enough to start a foundation, but at least successful enough to have some discretionary income for a change, and even support favored causes, like the WWF, Greenpeace and Unicef (and also occasional starving artists—a personal weakness, and later on, support a family. One of my many jobs in that era was at Hanna Barbera Studios, as staff writer for the new children's animation series, The Smurfs. This led to a certain degree of popularity and notoriety (I wrote the premiere and majority of episodes for the first two seasons, gave an interview which became part of Matt Groenig's curriculum at UCLA, and eventually walked away after losing an effort in the NLRB to get residual payments for myself and my peers).
I remember a seminal moment in my Hollywood career when I received a letter from The Friends Journal, which had somehow caught on to my Quaker background and wanted to know, very bluntly stated, what I was doing to promote peace in the world.
Well, I was flabbergasted. Since the only honest answer was “not much” (given Hefty Smurf's overtly violent tendencies, not to mention anti-intellectual bent, not to mention Jokey Smurf's cool habit of planting bombs everywhere just for laughs—how quaint an idea that would be these days—wonder why you haven't seen any old Smurfs episodes lately?). In my defense, I'd had zero influence on the content, character development or story structure of the overall series, since it was based on Belgian author Peyo's already famous illustrated books. I had managed to create a couple of non-violent characters, such as Poet and Painter Smurf, as a form of self absolution. But I was ill-prepared to answer to the Vatican of Quakerism, The Friends Journal. I also felt I was being judged (and not with a favorable verdict, which was also how I saw it myself), so I didn't respond.
About two years later, when I'd attempted to salvage my animation career (basically in order to feed a newly acquired family) I took a job at another studio, Filmation Studios, which was producing a hot new series called He Man with a female counterpart called She Ra. You can imagine, if you haven't seen it. But there, at last, my conscience caught up to me, and I called it a day. That same week, perhaps not coincidentally, I got a call from a reporter from The Long Island Express, back east in New York. Apparently I'd been overheard by someone, somewhere, speaking out at last, against violence in children's television. How word of this had gotten back to New York I don't know, but I dutifully answered questions and reconfirmed my views about all this, particularly concerning all the ancillary products like toy weapons that were become big sellers (another current show, G.I. Joe, was also hugely popular, was selling ancillary toy weapons and other war implements as was yet another violence prone show from my old employers at H.B., called Transformers, and toy (which would later become all too real) guns were becoming a must have among the boy populace. This interview managed to find its way back to the Coast in a matter of hours, and the next day I was called onto the carpet, so to speak, and summarily fired. That old expression “you'll never work in this town again” was particularly directed at me, just then. This actually proved to be hyperbolic, for a time, as I picked up a 16-episode assignment later that year on Dennis the Menace from an old friend who'd adopted my dog Woofie after it ate my then-step-daughter's bird Smurfy. But, once Dennis was done in L.A., so was I.
I moved to Florida in part to take advantage of some still-available grandparenting, as I'd become single parent to my son Jonathan by this time. I had a screenplay with me I'd been unable to sell in L.A.: my Great American Screenplay, you might say, titled Old Money. It was based on a true crime in my old hometown in New Jersey: a crime I always believed someone had gotten away with. I'd become very weary of privileged people getting away with crimes, which seemed to have been happening on the political front my entire life. Clarence Thomas had just been elevated to the Supreme Court, and I decided that if justice couldn't be rendered in the Real World just yet, at least not the way I'd been raised to hope and dream it should my whole life, maybe it at least could happen in fiction. And so my first mystery novel evolved, which I retitled Storm Warning, and for which I reinvented myself as a somewhat worn-out former press photographer who'd retired to Florida to work on his boat, and solve crimes when called upon, if they were sufficiently justice and ecologically oriented. My principle character, Tony Lowell, would be a Vietnam veteran-turned-hippy peacenik, who refused to carry a gun. This was radical for the time, since this was the 1990s and the age of Gingrich and the rise of the NRA to national dominance. Whether or not He-Man and G.I. Joe had anything to do with it, guns were increasingly popular, the more the better (which situation has hardly improved since then, hence all those ongoing mass killings, Ft. Worth being just the latest). Detective fiction at the time was likewise increasingly violent, the typical hero a Stallone or deNiro type who shot first, then again just to make sure, and then maybe wouldn't bother to ask questions. Even female protagonists in mysteries (those of Sarah Paretsky, etc.) were taking on this demeanor, basically striving to out-punch and outshoot the guys, to stake out their place or whatever, in literary lore. But I would stick to my guns, or rather no guns. It was the least I could do. Or at least, what Tony Lowell could do.
Actually, there is plenty of precedence for a non-violent detective hero. Not that Tony didn't at least kick back on occasion. I do not recall Sherlock Holmes ever committing an act of violence in his career. He used wits, not brawn. Agatha Christie also specialized in non-violent private investigators, including Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. True, he may have had a weapon or two, but he seldom used one. I also had another challenge: theirs was not the American Way. I didn't want Lowell to be preachy or morally self-righteous. If I'd learned one thing in Hollywood, it was that boring was fatal. And what could be more boring than preachy righteousness? Thus Lowell was something of a bad boy too. In fact, he was known to smoke pot on occasion (didn't we all, in the 60s, except Bill Clinton?). And he was more than worldly in other ways as well. Publisher's Weekly would eventually describe Tony Lowell as “Travis McGee, Don Quixote, and Willy Nelson all rolled into one.” But that's jumping ahead.
Manuscript finished, on a last minute impulse I decided to submit it in a contest I'd just learned about: the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First P.I. Novel competition, in New York. Two months later, having just taken a job to write non-violent animated films for a non-profit Quaker-run Santa Fe film company I received word that Storm Warning had won the SMP/PI Writers of America contest and would be published as the start of a new series by St. Martin's Press. Because Ed McBain had previously published a mystery by the same title, SMP, my then-agent Dan Strone and I came up with a new title for my award winning first mystery: Hour of the Manatee. It was then that I decided each book would have an eco-theme, combined with a social justice theme, along with good old fashioned hard boiled crime writing.
The next year The Tony Lowell Mystery series was born, and began it's short but influential run in (and out of) Florida. It has recently been revived as a POD and ebook series by World Audience Publishing (www.worldaudience.org) with a long-withheld fifth addition, Cry of the Heron. Whether today's readers are ready for the return of the hip detective remains to be seen. But the issues themselves have never been more timely.