James Grady

portrait James Grady

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 183 ~ August, 2012

James Grady (http://www.jamesgrady.net/) is the author of  screenplays, articles, and over a dozen critically acclaimed thrillers, including his best known novel, Six Days of the Condor, which was adapted into the classic film Three Days of the Condor, staring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.

Originally from Montana, Grady currently lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C.  He has been an American Edgar nominee, while France awarded him the Grand Prix Du Roman Noir in 2001, and Italy presented him with the Raymond Chandler Award in 2004. In 2005, Grady was honored with an Outstanding Alumni Award from the University of Montana (Missoula), where he graduated with a degree in journalism.

James Grady

James Grady

Grady’s novel, Mad Dogs (Forge Books, 2006), received Japan’s Baka-Misu literary award in 2008. His story “The Bottom Line” was listed by Carl Hiaassen and Otto Penzler as one of their “Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2006” in an anthology, The Best American Mystery Stories of 2007. One of his most beloved works of prose “The Championship of Nowhere” was published in the Best Mystery Stories 2002.

A member of the Writers’ Guild, before devoting himself to writing full-time, Grady spent four years in the post-Watergate era as a national investigative reporter for columnist Jack Anderson. His freelance journalism has appeared in several prominent publications, including The Washington Post, Washington Magazine, and The New Republic, to name a few.

 

Derek Alger:  You originally hail from Montana.

James Grady:  Yes, I was born and raised there, a town called Shelby. When I was young, the population was supposedly 4,000, but really probably closer to 3,000.

Shelby was — then — a tough oil field, railroad and farming town, a half hour drive north to Canada, and located on prairie 60 miles east of the Rocky Mountains. Seemed like everywhere you went in town there were cousins.

DA:  You have a colorful family background, including a relative who was a doctor with George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge.

JG:  We found out the Valley Forge story from someone who did research in the Mormon archives, so while it’s part of our lore, I’ve never confirmed it. But my maternal grandfather was a cowboy — photos of him in the Library of Congress collection — and my maternal grandmother, who I knew, was once the town’s midwife. She’d had polio as a girl, had arms like a stevedore and a gothic heart that shaped our family.

DA:  Your family didn’t own a television until you were ten.

JG:  That was common in my town in the mid-1950’s, and given that my dad managed but did not own the local movie theater, we were slow to get TV perhaps on purpose. But Shelby was its own world. In Montana, people actually used silver dollars, we had a bordello protected by the local cops and supervised by the town doctors. It was a prairie town with a 60 mile skyline even though it was in a sort of valley. You could see across the whole town. Blizzards would roar in and seal off the town for three to four days at a time.

DA:  Your father’s job was perfect for a kid who loved and appreciated stories.

JG:  Yeah. I got to see four or more movies a week, also worked at the theater, and in the summer, the drive-in openings allowed me to see three or four movies on top of that. I couldn’t have asked for any earlier exposure and lessons in storytelling. Because most of the movies were “B” circuit films, the science fiction and film noir of the late ’50s and early ’60s were most of what I liked — the Rock Hudson-Doris Day fantasies were in there, too, but I was more a Romy Schneider — Marilyn kind of guy. I could believe the end of the world stories — Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved that, plus our country was home to one of the biggest concentrations of ICBM missile sites in the world. Armageddon was always just a  few minutes away.

DA:  You also read a great deal.

JG:  My mother became one of the county librarians when I was young, so that helped. I read all the time, but mostly mysteries, some science fiction, some “adventure” novels. That continued into Junior High and high school, and wonderfully got augmented by the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll. To get good stations, you had to wait until night, often drive out to the hills around town and pull in 50,000 Watt stations from Oklahoma City and Chicago, and Canada.

DA:  What was high school like?

JG:  High school was for many of us, a swirl of contradictions and questions. I was the worst football player on the team, but it was a chance to try to claim some macho credit, to not be a “nerd,” even though I was a good kid and a total bespectacled geek of no interest to girls. And a touch arrogant.

DA:  And then a whole new world opened up to you in college.

JG:  What a wonderful change! I could only afford to go to the University of Montana in Missoula, but the town had a population of about 40,000 which initially felt like New York to me. The University’s student body population was around 10,000, swollen because of the Vietnam War by returning vets and guys trying to stay out of the draft. My terrible eyesight made me 4F, but I felt all those pressures, too.

I chose journalism as a major thinking it covered fiction, too — I know, how naive!

I stayed with journalism because it seemed more relevant and street real than the creative writing classes I also took — plus the J school gave me some small scholarships. I plunged into college, had almost enough credits to get a poli sic degree, too, though they were all in the philosophical theory classes, more important and “real” I thought then and now than the other poli sci curriculum. I told myself I was shaping my education so I could go to law school, which is what my town and family expected from me, even though I’d wanted to write fiction since I was five. It was a huge relief — bold step to decide to follow my writing urges.

DA:  You gained experience in the political process at a relatively early age.

JG:  The times made anyone who was aware “political.” Working from a limited life experience and data pool, I’d been a Teenage Republican, gone to state GOP conventions, then quickly became a non-leader student protestor against the war at college (though I got in some trouble from conservatives in my home town). Then when I was trying to figure out how to make the move into fiction writing, I lucked into a job working as a Research Analyst at the 1972 state Constitution Convention, a moral/political adventure too important and exciting to turn down.

I’d also had an undergraduate internship through a Sears & Roebuck Foundation to be one of 20 college students brought to D.C. to be on a Congressional staff —  I lucked out and ended up on Senator Lee Metcalf from Montana’s staff by a fluke. While I was living in D.C. on Capital Hill for that internship, the seeds of Condor got planted.

Those experiences grounded me in hard core reality and my internal life grounded me in imagination. I think my fiction has always been a merger of those groundings.

DA:  And then you dropped everything to write.

JG:  I felt like I had no other choice, the drive to write was that strong. My decisions scared the hell out of my parents and I think my friends, but I was happy as hell. I figured I’d go through cycles of “real world” work to fund periods of what I really wanted to do, write fiction full-time. I thought it would take me until I was 40 or so to get a break and get published.

DA:  How did the central idea for Six Days of the Condor come about?

JG:  In D.C. as an undergrad intern, I kept walking past this townhouse on Capital Hill that had a phony sounding plaque in front of it — in reality, the headquarters of the American Historical Association. But I never saw anyone come in or out of it, “flashed” on: What if a CIA front? The next flash was: What if I came back from lunch and everyone in my office had been murdered? I merged those two questions, answered the two questions of why and how, and had this slim first novel. The book was very much of its era: Vietnam, Watergate, the Serpico and Godfather worlds, paranoia — and rebellion.

DA:  Why was the movie based on your novel titled Three Days of the Condor?

JG:  Sydney Pollock, the great director, explained to me that you can’t make a movie spread out over six consecutive days of Robert Redford being on the run because you had to account for him sleeping, shaving, etc., so they wrote the script, counted the days . . . and had three.

DA:  How did you feel when you first saw the movie?

JG:  Redford arranged a screening for me before it came out in D.C., and I took my brand new colleagues from syndicated columnist Jack Anderson’s office where I’d just started as a muckraker/investigative reporter — another opportunity that was too morally important and let’s face it, cool, to pass up. I felt like I was in another dimension. I couldn’t talk, faked my way through the next couple days. I loved the movie, but beyond that . . . it was a movie that came out of me. A movie!

DA:  Did you meet any of the stars?

JG:  Redford and Max Von Sydow were incredibly gracious to me, as was director Pollack. I could only visit the set for about three days, because just as I sold Condor to replenish my dwindling bank account, I’d applied and won another, better year long fellowship with Senator Metcalf, where the Senate was in the middle of Watergate (too cool to pass up). Metcalf was a great, feisty, maverick Senator, rough, rugged, and brilliant. He and the other Montana Senator, Mike Mansfield, who was Majority Leader of the Senate, gave me a ringside seat on politics and how things got done that influences me to this day, as does their very moral approach to politics.

DA:  So, you did time as a reporter?

JG:  Yes, I’d started working as a reporter for syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, stayed with Jack for the next four years. I covered politics, crime, drug trafficking, espionage, anything of interest or importance. I was getting paid to uncover and report and write about the realities I was also obsessed with writing about as fiction. I learned a huge amount, but the 60 hour weeks cut into my fiction time, so I left Jack’s to just write fiction full-time. I think if I’d seen San Francisco by then, I might have moved, but I also knew that even after a decade of digging, D.C. was just beginning to be “my” turf, so why give that up?

DA:  And then there was Bonnie.

JG:  By the time I was 34, I was worried I’d be a bachelor my whole life. A number of wonderful women had tried to domesticate me, but who could understand the kind of noir life I led, let alone put up with it? I made my living working in a fantasy world, I ran the streets with D.C.’s homicide squad and other places in the globe with bad guys, all to learn about “the life.” I was in control but definitely renegade. Bonnie Goldstein was a legend I’d heard about, a woman who’d been an ex-pat in Mexico and then helped invent a new style of “private eyes” who worked on policy, not divorces, etc. She went on to be a national network TV producer, a U.S, Senate aide, and now a cyber journalist, as well as the mom to our two kids.

DA: Looks like she did a good job as a mother.

Mad Dogs

Mad Dogs

JG:  Our daughter Rachel is an Academy Award nominated director/producer for Jesus Camp, and our son Nathan is trying to make it as a writer, one who wants only marginal input from Dad. He’s published a couple national articles, but he should be writing mangas or in a writers’ room for cyber fiction teams. And Rachel gave us a grandson, Desmond.

DA: How did you and the legendary Bonnie first meet?

JG:  We met when I wanted to write a novel about private eyes set in D.C. One of her partners had been a reporter intern of mine, and when I got a magazine article to write about private detectives to legitimize and fund my fictional research, he told me I should write about their firm. I went to their D.C. office, had my back to the door, talking to him, and heard other people entering, guessed it was the other two partners, one of whom was this woman/legend named Bonnie Goldstein. I had no idea what she looked like. I deliberately didn’t turn around: after all, I was a cool author. Then I heard her laugh and in the next instant, the thought that flashed  through me was: “I’m in such fucking trouble” because that laugh just swept me away. Then I turned around. I interviewed her two partners for 20 minutes each, her for three hours, but it took us four years to get together.

DA:  Commenting on your novel, Mad Dogs, Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, said it was “a pleasure to be in the hands of a master storyteller.”

JG:  Praise from wonderful writers like Dennis blows me away.

DA:  You probably don’t even know the answer, but in offering high praise for your novel, Mad Dogs, BookList stated, “There are a couple ways to read the novel: as a flat-out thriller or as an extended hallucination.”

JG:  You’re right, I don’t know the answer. the novel came to me in a  rush based on never-published things various spies and such told me. For me, the book all comes down to its motto; “It takes guts to be nuts.”

DA: The novel has an interesting premise, five former CIA operatives break out of a government, top-secret insane asylum after their psychiatrist is murdered.

JG:  I think of it more as a novel like Cuckoo’s Nest  than a big action/chase thriller, and deals with the reality that at one time or another, we all think either we or the world is crazy.

DA:  You have a story in the anthology D.C. Noir, as well as one in D.C. Noir 2, both edited by George Pelecanos for Akashic Books.

JG:  In the late 1980’s I fell in love with writing short stories, and now write them every time someone offers to publish one. I’ve got more than a dozen published now, several award winners, and one was optioned for a TV project that will now, sadly, never happen. There’s been other Hollywood interest in a couple stories, but no checks. A few have been anthologized in “BEST OF” annual collections, making me quite lucky.

DA:  How was working with George Pelecanos?

JG:  George is great, an old time friend and actually a neighbor. He’s an extraordinarily talented writer and film maker, who’s quietly one of the nicest guys in he world, even though he writes some tough fiction. I love George.

Getting to know authors like him whose work I admire and who are also great guys has been such a bonus of my already lucky career.

DA:  You’ve said the French helped you discover who you are as a writer.

JG:  French critics and publishers labeled me “noir” early in my career, and about 10 years ago, I finally got and agreed with what I think they mean. Whether I write and publish — as I have — cop stories, spy stories, private eye characters, political or crime sagas, I am fascinated by what happens when people much like us are up against choices involving life or death, whether they’ve got a badge or a government I.D., or just happen to be walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. For me, my noir fiction requires the characters must be able to choose and all my stories have some elements of redemption. The French and Italians got that, generously gave me some awards (Grand Prix du Roman Noir in France, 2001, and the Raymond Chandler medal in Italy, 2004).

DA:  What are you working on now?

JG:  Arab Spring told as an American spies ticking clock novel. I’m now about 50 pages from finishing the first draft. It’s sort of Condor meets Our Man in Havana, set 1/3 in a “fictitious” country and 2/3’s in Washington. The story deals with politics, conscience, choices we all face, and is set against everything from the billions of dollars that’s drowning our political campaign process to global warming. I’m working on it as fast as I can, knew I had to write this book when I overheard two D.C. “power players” conversation a couple weeks after Tunisia blew and envisioned my hero. I’ve taken time off from the novel to finish up a two-year stint as a cultural columnist for AOL’s PoliticsDaily.com and to write a few short stories, but since January 2011, I’ve been hard at work on this one.