Charles Ardai is a busy guy. He’s the Editor for the prolific Hard Case Crime imprint, a writer and producer on SyFy’s “Haven,” and in between all that, tracks down lost manuscripts from great, deceased crime authors. In between all that, he found time to chat with us about the upcoming novel from James M. Cain, the new season of Haven, and Stephen King’s upcoming “tearjerker” of a book:
MTV Geek: For those of us not steeped in crime novel lore, why is the discovery of “The Cocktail Waitress” important? And how did you come across the manuscript?
Charles Ardai: Every field’s got its stars. If you’re a film geek, it’s Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa… If you’re into classic rock, it’s the Beatles, the Stones, the Doors… Well, in hardboiled crime fiction, the big three are Dashiell Hammett (author of THE MALTESE FALCON), Raymond Chandler (author of THE BIG SLEEP), and James M. Cain (author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, MILDRED PIERCE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY). Discovering a new, never-before-published book by one of these men is a big deal. Imagine turning up a never-before-released Beatles album or a never-screened Kubrick film.
As for how I found it, crime novelist and comics author Max Allan Collins (ROAD TO PERDITION) put me on the scent more than a decade ago. He’d heard that the book existed – Cain had mentioned it in a couple interviews he gave at the very end of his life. But it was never published and when Cain died, the manuscript disappeared. His agents didn’t have a copy, his estate didn’t. It took me nine years to track it down and secure the right to reprint it. Then I spent months editing it, since I ultimately wound up finding multiple versions, some typed, some of them written out longhand in Cain’s impenetrable scrawl. One manuscript was hiding in the files of Cain’s Hollywood agent, himself deceased; several others were in cardboard boxes stored in a special room at the Library of Congress. It was quite the hunt.
Geek: That’s incredible… So what can fans look for in the book? Or for those hesitant about jumping into crime fiction, what would draw them in?
CA: Well, if that cover painting doesn’t draw you in, you don’t have a pulse. And anyone who loves MAD MEN on TV will certainly find something to like in a book about a cocktail waitress working in a MAD MEN-era bar, getting hit on by schemers and dreamers and men of all stripes. But the main thing that will draw people in is what’s drawn people into Cain’s books ever since he started scandalizing readers back in the 1930s: the raw desires of desperate people in terrible situations. Here you’ve got a classic femme fatale, Joan Medford, who’s already lost one husband to suspicious circumstances when the book opens; to get her electricity and gas and phone turned back on she’s got to take a job serving drinks to men with roaming eyes and wandering hands, and before long two of the men stand out: one who’s young and handsome but poor, and one who’s rich but old and repulsive. Then, one day, the older man gives her a $50,000 tip. Are you telling me you don’t want to know what happens next…?
Geek: I do! I do! Okay, in general, what is the market like right now for vintage crime? Both from the book publishing, and comic book publishing stand-points, there seems to be a resurgence of interest.
CA: Crime fiction never goes out of style – it’s been one of the most popular genres in bookstores as long as there have been bookstores; on TV as long as there has been TV. When we switch to watching on retinal implants, I promise that CSI:RETINA will be one of the first big hits. But you’re right that there’s been a resurgence of interest specifically in some of the trappings of classic pulp fiction recently – the hardboiled detectives, the seductresses, the grifters and con men and crime bosses. And there’s a reason for it: it’s just so damn much fun. Back in the pulp era, crime came wrapped in a stylish and colorful presentation that much modern crime fiction lacks. It’s sexy and dangerous and devious and clever, and the dialogue crackles – it’s like watching a good movie. As opposed to the drab, plodding procedurals too many modern crime authors serve up. People try one of our books and say, “Why the hell did this ever go out of style? It’s great.”
Geek: Can you talk a little about balancing your work on Hard Case, with working on Haven with SyFy? I realize one came out of the other, but I imagine both jobs draw you in different directions?
CA: Haven airs for 13 weeks per year, and to produce those 13 hours of television we work unbelievably intensely for about eight or nine months. But I’m a consulting producer on the show, not an executive producer – so I’m not up in L.A. every week, I’m not in Nova Scotia, where we film, unless they’re shooting an episode I wrote. That doesn’t mean it’s not grueling, working on 13 scripts and taking redeyes from one coast to the other when I’m needed – but it’s less grueling for me than for the people for whom Haven is a full-time gig, and so far I’ve been able to juggle my Haven responsibilities with my Hard Case Crime work. What’s fallen off is my own writing – I wrote three books for Hard Case Crime in our first five years, and I haven’t written one since Haven launched. But I’m hopeful that this fall, while production’s on hiatus, I’ll do another.
Geek: What’s it like taking on those two very different perspectives on genre fiction? Or is there crossover, given the genesis?
CA: Haven is a cop show, sort of, but it’s a supernatural cop show, and as time goes on, the big supernatural mythology of the show is taking center stage more and more. Hard Case Crime, meanwhile, is pulp fiction but set very solidly in the real world. So the genres don’t cross very much at all. In fact, THE COLORADO KID didn’t have any overt supernatural elements in it – those got added in the transition from page to screen. But as a reader — and as a viewer, and as a writer — I’m an omnivore: I love crime fiction, science fiction, horror, all of it. A good story is a good story; a compelling character is a compelling character, whether he’s fighting crooked cops or tentacled elder gods or a woman whose moods control the weather. I love doing down-and-dirty noir when I write for Hard Case Crime and then breaking out the fantastical stuff when I travel up to Haven.
Geek: How about working with Stephen King? He almost seems like the center of the Venn Diagram of your two worlds…
CA: Steve is fantastic. Not just a fantastic writer (that goes without saying), but a fantastic person – his generosity, in choosing Hard Case Crime to publish THE COLORADO KID, when any publisher in the world would have jumped at the chance to do it, is beyond words. He put us on the map. He’s also just a pleasure to work with, a pleasure in every way. We just finished editing his new book for us, and I’ve never had an easier, more pleasurable editing experience with any author.
Geek: Can you talk a bit about that next book?
CA: Yes, JOYLAND. It’s coming out in June 2013, and it’s perfect summer reading. It’s actually set partly on a beach, in the summer, so you have no excuse not to buy a copy and take it with you to the beach next summer. (I do realize that by the same reasoning you should only read FRANKENSTEIN in a castle during a lightning storm, but never mind.) We’re keeping the book under wraps until we’re closer to the publication date, so you won’t get any spoilers from me, but I’ll tell you it’s about a college student who gets a summer job working at a small-town amusement park and discovers some very strange things going on. Anyone who wants more info can find a bit on our website, www.hardcasecrime.com. I’ll tell you this: I’m a hardboiled sort of guy, but I was crying by the end of JOYLAND. Anyone who can read this book without shedding a tear shed is made of stone.
Geek: Given the popularity of crime fiction in comics, with Darwyn Cooke’s Parker books, or a lot of Ed Brubaker’s work, do you think Hard Case would ever expand out to graphic novels?
CA: Yes and no. I’m a comic book fan from way back (DC boy – the Flash is my man), so of course I’d relish the chance to do some comic books someday. (I actually did create a short-lived science-fiction anthology series called ORBIT years ago with Eclipse Comics.) But there may be legal issues – there was once a comic book character called “Hardcase,” and I think Marvel still holds a trademark on that name for use in comics, so… It’s complicated.
What we are doing is our first novel with interior art – and it’s one with a comic book theme. In February 2013, we’re publishing SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT by Max Allan Collins, a fictionalized account of the 1950s witchhunt against crime and horror comics that went after the publisher of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, EC Comics. The book features more than a dozen interior illustrations done in the EC style by Terry Beatty. Comic fans are going to love that one. And if it does well, who knows? Maybe we’ll find a way to dip another toe into the graphic world.
Geek: What else is coming up for Hard Case?
CA: In between SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and JOYLAND we’re bringing out the first new edition of WEB OF THE CITY, Harlan Ellison’s famous first novel, to hit bookstores in 30 years. It will feature the definitive text of the book, fixing some errors that have dogged the book since its initial publication, and also three short stories Harlan wrote for the pulp crime magazines of the 1950s that deal with some of the same themes as the novel does.
And then after JOYLAND we’ve got a very special book coming – it’s about a topic much in the air these days in literary circles, and it’s by only our second female author ever: Elissa Wald. She’s a stunning writer who’s won praise from writers such as Junot Diaz and Pat Conroy, it’s her first new book in 12 years, and her topic is a rich one: submission and domination in relationships between men and women.
The title of the book? THE SECRET LIVES OF MARRIED WOMEN.
Mark my words: It’s going to leave scorch marks on bedside tables across the nation.
The Cocktail Waitress hits bookstores on September 18th; the new season of Haven premieres on SyFy on September 21st at 10pm.