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.
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.
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.
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."