I had admired Ross Macdonald for his work for years. I can remember the day a college roommate gave me his copy of The Chill and dared me to read a mystery. I read it in a single sitting and was blown away by the intellect that could conceive such a lucid pathway through the maze of human deviousness.




I met Ken Millar in the summer of 1975 at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, the event that author Barnaby Conrad has so wondrously run for all these years. I went to the conference not to meet Millar (a.k.a. Ross Macdonald), but to quit writing.

I was 29 years old and was giving up. Oh, I had set off five years earlier, determined like every other writer that I was going to produce those words everyone had always been itching to read, only they didn't know it yet.

In truth, I had sold nothing and I no longer believed anything would sell. But I wanted to quit on a high note, not feel like I had failed. After all, being a writer is like swimming up a waterfall. Nobody is surprised that so many can't do it; we are only surprised that some do succeed.

I chose the Santa Barbara Writers Conference because it was advertised as being held on the beach at Santa Barbara, at the Miramar Hotel. The Miramar had two bars, two pools, and security guards on little golf carts who went around the bungalows at last call to make sure the drunks got back safely.

If you're going to quit writing, why not at the Miramar? Why not at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, with its annual crowd of real writers to hobnob with? Ray Bradbury was there, as was Alex Haley, who was then finishing up Roots, and Irwin Shaw, who was now a Rich Man and not a Poor Man, and Maya Angelou and Gay Talese and Charles Schultz and... and Ross Macdonald.

I had admired Ross Macdonald for his work for years. I can remember the day a college roommate gave me his copy of The Chill and dared me to read a mystery. I read it in a single sitting and was blown away by the intellect that could conceive such a lucid pathway through the maze of human deviousness.

I was a fan. That was enough.

And I saw him there at the conference. Ross Macdonald was tall and stately, stoic and gentlemanly. He wore a straw hat; Santa Barbara was hot that summer. He had buttoned the top button of his short-sleeve shirt; he was elderly. He walked deliberately. He looked unapproachable. Until I saw him with other people. His smile was open and flashing; he was generous with his smiles.

I didn't try to approach him. He was a published novelist. I was from the other side of the universe. The unknown side of that side. Whatever thoughts I had ever had about being a writer -- hell, I was there because I was quitting writing. That anguish was for other people. I didn't feel bad that I wasn't cut out to be a writer, that I had wasted a few years of my life. Hey, I was a child of the 1960s. No loss there.

One or two days before the conference ended, I got the word from Barnaby Conrad's people that every "student" at the conference was supposed to submit some work they had done. Well, I had nothing substantial with me. Certainly nothing I wanted to show anyone. I hadn't brought any completed stories, any polished poems, anything. What I had were pages of dead-ends, cul-de-sacs of unfinished stories: Evidence I might need to keep my resolve if I lost my courage and thought about giving the writing life another try.

For some reason -- maybe my latent fear of authority figures -- I looked in the small notebook I always carried to see if there were any miracles I had mislaid. The notebook wasn't much. Inside were a bunch of observations about the nightlife in San Francisco, where I was then living. I had a job as a cab driver; I saw things I never wanted to see. What was written in there were things I didn't want to forget. But no prose pieces. Not even a plot. Not enough for a character sketch. Just a bunch of one-liners about the streets of San Francisco after midnight.

I could remember my college professor whispering, "If you call it a poem, it's a poem." So I took two dozen of these one-liners and stretched them into a free-form poem, borrowed somebody's typewriter, submitted the poem, and promptly forgot about it.

The next morning, someone -- I still don't know who -- telephoned my bungalow and said I had to get up, it was 8 a.m., and I had to get over to the convention center. Well, if you wake me up by screaming at me, I get up and never wonder why. Especially when I'd been present at last call the night before, and looked it.

Everybody was in the convention center. Somebody was announcing the winner of the "poetry contest." And it was me!

Somebody said I had to come up on stage and read my poem. Somehow I did it. The only face I saw was Ross Macdonald's, and he was staring so intently, I got scared and wished I were elsewhere. I didn't figure he was buffaloed by my poem. I figured I won the poetry prize because everybody else there wrote fiction.

By 8:30, I was on a stool in the Miramar bar. I was alone.

Ross Macdonald looked in the bar. I was impressed. This was the closest I had gotten to him in six, seven days. I toasted him with my draft beer, and he came over. He stuck out his hand and I shook it, and he said, "That was a very nice poem you wrote." I was stunned. When I'm stunned, I get as charming as I can be. "Can I buy you a drink?" He scowled and said, "I don't drink before sundown." Oh.

Then he left.

While I didn't think I had blown it, I didn't think I had made a very good impression on the writer I most looked up to. But I knew I was just a fan, and he would forget me quickly enough. There's always salvation in anonymity.

Twenty-four hours later, on the last morning of the conference, I was in the bar again, nursing another of those a.m. drafts, and Ross Macdonald stuck his head in the bar again. He saw me and came over.

"You look down in the dumps," he said.

"I have to fly back to San Francisco. My plane leaves in four hours. I have no place to go before then, so I'm just sitting here in the bar at the Miramar."

He frowned, almost said something, then made up his mind. "Do you need a ride to the airport?"

"Thank you, sir, but not for four hours."

Ross Macdonald said, "Why don't you come up to my house for the next four hours, and then I'll give you a ride to the airport?"

I think I said yes.

I know I followed him out of the Miramar bar, my suitcase in hand. We walked about a hundred yards to the parking spaces on the road into the Miramar. Two elderly women were there, standing by a compact car.

Ross Macdonald announced to them, "This is Fred Zackel, who wrote that poem about San Francisco. His flight there leaves in four hours, and he's having difficulty getting out to the airport."

Then he introduced me to his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar and the other woman with her. "He's on the same flight you are," he told the other woman.

He told them I could hang with them, and we could all go to the airport together. The two women weren't happy with his generosity, but we all piled into the car. His wife sat behind the wheel, while Ross Macdonald sat beside her. I sat in the back seat. Next to author Eudora Welty.

* * *

Margaret Millar drove like a bat out of hell.

She drove a tiny Japanese car, one of those early models that barely held four adults. And she went around curves like the chase at the end of a thriller, and more often than not jumped the curb doing so. She never slowed, either. She went full-bore and flat out.

She scared me the most when we swung by the Santa Barbara fairgrounds. Honest to God, I didn't think she'd be able to pass a truck changing lanes on the inside before he, too, filled the lane she wanted. But she did it, squeezing through like a teenager in a crowd.

Ross Macdonald sat beside her. I sat behind him, and Eudora Welty sat on my left. I felt so sorry for her. Every time Margaret Millar took a turn, either Eudora Welty smashed into my shoulder, or I would crash into hers.

Eudora Welty was not a small woman, but she did appear delicate and fragile. Banging into me must have jarred her as much as getting smacked with a swinging door. And every time I flew into her, I nearly squashed her like a bug.

We had no seatbelts in those days.

And nobody said a word the entire way.

The trip to Santa Barbara's exclusive Hope Ranch neighborhood was over quicker than it should have been.

We all went inside the Millars' ranch-style house on Esperanza Avenue, the one they had bought with movie money.

The Millars had dogs -- great German shepherds, for the most part -- and like all true dog lovers, they kept the house safe for galloping hounds. After the handful of dogs told us all how grateful they were to see us, Margaret Millar let them out.

Over instant coffee I was quizzed about my past, present, and future.

Being quizzed was a terrifying experience. These three writers were brilliant, famous, and successful. I was not. I felt very much out of my league.

I tugged out a cigarette. "Do you mind if I smoke?"

All three faces lit up with disapproval.

"No one smokes inside the house," Ross Macdonald said.

"Mind if I smoke outside?"

I went poolside and lit a cigarette.

I stayed outside longer than I should have. I felt defiant. I had nothing to lose, I thought.

Back inside, the quizzing began again.

"I came to the writers conference to quit being a writer," I explained. "In the past five years, I have sold nothing, and I don't believe anything will ever sell."

The three looked at me as if I was a talking dolphin.

"Why go to a writers conference to quit writing?"

"I wanted to go out with no regrets. The Miramar Hotel is on the beach in Santa Barbara, has two pools and two bars, and the security guards drive around after last call in golf carts to pick up the drunks and make sure they get back to their cottages."

"Read your poem for us," Ross Macdonald said.

I took it from my binder and read it aloud.

All three leaned back and contemplated the cosmos.

When I was done, all three looked at each other and frowned.

"What kind of writing have you been doing?" Macdonald asked me.

I said I had been trying to write literary fiction about Midwest farm towns. About people as gray as a winter's sky and hearts as cold as a coffin's touch. About being a stranger in my native land. You know, tedious crap.

"May we see some of it?"

I went to my suitcase and unpacked the chunks of paper.

Each writer took a swatch and read. Then they passed the papers around. I drank black coffee and watched them read. When they were done, all three gave me back my manuscripts, stared at the floor and frowned.

Finally, Ross Macdonald spoke.

"Have you ever thought about doing something serious, like detective fiction?"

I said, "No." In a panic, I said, "I don't know how."

He said, "I will help you."

Three of us stared at him.

* * *

That changed my life's direction. Over the next few years I had Ross Macdonald as my mentor.

We swapped letters back and forth -- "Although," he wrote once, "you shouldn't spend writing like that on a letter. Save everything for the book, especially yourself."

When I could, I showed up at his house on Esperanza Street ("Street of Hope," in Spanish). Sometimes he knew I was coming and he was ready for me, and sometimes I came unannounced, too afraid of being turned down over the telephone, and so I would wake his wife and him up. He was always generous with his time.

He showed me his office, his shelves of books, and his notebooks, one for each novel, some that had been started decades before. He had stacks of notebooks, and each one was written in as meticulously as a bookkeeper's ledger. I couldn't imagine how he could begin with a single metaphor, and yet it would grow almost miraculously into a novel.

He had his leather recliner and the wooden board he used as a writing table. He would lay that board across the arms, and that chair was a transporter worthy of anything the Starship Enterprise ever carried. That chair carried him -- and all his readers -- to great adventures.

We went for long walks with his dogs on dry riverbeds, and I would ask him every question I could imagine. He was always generous with his answers.

He said, "The detective isn't your main character, and neither is your villain. The main character is the corpse. The detective's job is to seek justice for the corpse. It's the corpse's story, first and foremost."

He said, "You don't need to describe your detective. He describes himself by the questions he asks and by how he reacts to other people's answers. Your readers will visualize him in their own minds."

My fears were the usual, although I never knew it.

I asked, "What do you do when everything you wrote is completely wrong?"

He said, "You start again."

He was always supportive. "This is very promising material," he wrote me once. "Guard it with your life. And give it a good, strong, not too complicated storyline."

And when my first book, Cocaine and Blue Eyes, was done, he read it and said, "You have written a large, good, contemporary novel with a style which seems to me very much your own, composed out of the daytime speech and nighttime visions of your characters."

Later, he wrote a blurb for Cocaine and Blue Eyes: "Fred Zackel's first novel reminds me of the young Dashiell Hammett's work, not because it is an imitation, but because it is not. It is a powerful and original book made from the lives and languages of the people who live in San Francisco today."

Well, that was unbelievable. Almost unthinkable. Hell, nobody could live up to that blurb, although I do know a dozen truly more deserving P.I. writers who should have had something like that attached to their names and reputations. But Ken was a sweetheart of a guy who went out of his way for me and transformed my image of myself.

He did more, and said more to me, and all of that is more personal than I wish to be here. But because of him, I wrote and published two novels. In both hardcover and paperback. In not only English, but also French and Spanish. My first novel was reviewed by Time magazine, and that became a special moment I still cherish. The book went to become a TV movie.

I, too, went on. I earned a master's degree and a Ph.D., and I taught creative writing and contemporary fiction on both the graduate and undergraduate levels. I even taught an honors course I created myself. "The Detective in Literature" was its title. And my mentor had a special place within the pantheon.

Then last October, almost 25 years after all this started, I received a note from author/critic Tom Nolan, saying that my name would be appearing in his new biography of Ross Macdonald. He wanted my permission to use some lines I had written to Macdonald in a letter.

Nolan sent me three or four manuscript pages, and I discovered again why Rashomon is my favorite movie: Each of us thinks we know what's real, but reality has more sides than a disco ball.

In his biography, Nolan quotes Eudora Welty: "It seems that Margaret [Millar] had said she didn't ever want anybody to come to their house. This should just be their house."

There was more. Some of it was painful.

I never knew the bond between husband and wife. The value they put on their privacy. That their home was their sacred shelter.

I never knew how much she despised anybody who came acallin'.

I never knew the price Macdonald paid to help me and others like me.

All that he did for me comprised such a tiny part of his life, but it was a turning point for me.

A quarter of a century later, I am even more grateful. | April 1999


FREDERICK ZACKEL is the author of Cocaine and Blue Eyes (1978) and Cinderella After Midnight (1980). He teaches at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Trivia buffs should note that the 1983 TV adaptation of Cocaine and Blue Eyes was co-produced by O.J. Simpson, who also starred as Zackel's detective, Michael Brennen. "Look at it this way," Zackel says: "I was discovered by Ross Macdonald and O.J. Simpson. That can haunt you in the wee hours of the night."

Tom Nolan ProfileLearning from Lew by Gary PhillipsRoss Macdonald QuotesMacdonald BibliographyIt's Personal by Kevin Smith