It’s All One Case: A Conversation Between Biographers

December 12, 2016   •   By Tom Nolan

THE LATE PAUL NELSON (1936–2006) was one of the most highly regarded popular-culture critics and journalists of the 1960s and ’70s — as a writer of introspective feature profiles and as a thoughtful explicator of albums and movies. He and I both wrote for Rolling Stone. I met Paul in Los Angeles in 1976, when he was spending much of the summer in Santa Barbara interviewing detective novelist Ross Macdonald (1915–1983), whose books I (like Paul) had been obsessed with for years. What a great story he would write about Macdonald, I anticipated — not without a twinge of envy. (Why hadn’t I thought of that?)

But that story was never printed. Paul ran into what he found to be an insurmountable roadblock: Macdonald and his lawyer insisted the journalist (and his boss, publisher Jann Wenner) sign an agreement not to discuss the novelist’s late daughter Linda in any Stone article.

“This sheet of paper basically said [Macdonald] could get an injunction and stop the presses,” Paul told me years later, “if there was anything about the daughter in the piece; this was mostly for the sake of [Linda’s] husband and [Macdonald’s] grandson.”

So integral was Macdonald’s troubled only child to the content and spirit of Macdonald’s novels and of his life, Paul felt, that Nelson was unable to write the sort of probing profile he had envisioned. 

Or so Paul said, when I interviewed him for the Ross Macdonald biography I began researching in 1990. By the time my book was published in 1999, I was no longer able to reach Paul by phone or mail: he died in 2006. 

But he was remembered, and his work resurrected, by writer Kevin Avery, who wrote a biography of Nelson that included several of Paul’s best magazine pieces. A second Avery-edited volume presented Nelson’s previously unpublished interviews with Clint Eastwood.

Now, this season, comes It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives by Paul Nelson and Kevin Avery with Jeff Wong (Fantagraphics, 301 pages, $44.99), a handsome, oversized, beautifully designed volume of text and images (with a back-cover blurb by yours truly).

I spoke recently by email with Kevin Avery about this impressive work.


TOM NOLAN: Did you know Paul Nelson?

KEVIN AVERY: The truth is, I never met the man. But based on all of his writing that I’ve read and the hundreds of hours I spent listening to his interview tapes, I feel as if I knew him very well.

The closest I came to meeting him was in June 2006, about five months after I’d moved to New York. A friend was visiting from out of town and we were sightseeing in the East Village. It was pouring rain. We found ourselves on Carmine Street, in front of the video shop where Paul had clerked for the last several years. I had already written him a letter proposing that we work together to anthologize his best work, but never received a reply. I figured I’d go inside and introduce myself, but we were told that he hadn’t worked there for the last year or so. A few weeks later, I learned that Paul had died. His body was discovered in his Upper East Side apartment on the Fourth of July. He’d been dead for a week before anyone found him.

When did you learn of the extensive interviews he did with Macdonald?

Paul’s 1983 Rolling Stone obituary of Macdonald hinted at it. In it, he mentioned that he had spent much of the summer of 1976 with Macdonald — whose real name was Kenneth Millar — and his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar. I figured there had to be considerable interviewing involved.

Those of us who’d known that Paul was interviewing Ross Macdonald kept checking new issues of Rolling Stone looking for his piece. Eventually he did that lovely brief remembrance, when Macdonald died; but the long, interview-based piece never was printed. Why do you think Nelson never wrote it?

Probably the same reason nothing ever became of the more than 17 hours of interviews he did with Clint Eastwood. Or the week he spent in Los Angeles interviewing singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen and Lucinda Williams. In each case, perhaps he revered the subject too much, had so much he wanted to say that he just couldn’t wrap his arms around them. Paul was a perfectionist, a beautiful writer for whom writing never came easily, and maybe he had more material than he knew what to do with. Like a sculptor with too big a block of marble or a painter with too large of a blank canvas.

There was a good deal more material in the Ross Macdonald interviews — some 45 hours’ worth — than was used in your book. How did you go about editing the text? How did you decide what to include and what to exclude?

I began by transcribing the digitized interviews, which Paul had originally recorded on cassettes. The publisher had offered to have someone in the office transcribe them for me, but I wanted to hear every word and how they were spoken. I had in fact already listened to the interviews when I was researching my first book, which included a biography of Paul — but then I was more interested in what he was saying. This time around I was concentrating on Macdonald’s words. The end result was over 1,300 double-spaced pages, which I then printed out into one great big block of paper. From there I just began reading what I’d transcribed, making notes, highlighting what I wanted to include, crossing out what I didn’t, and editing as I went along. Common themes began to reveal themselves, which ultimately resulted in the 30 chapters that you now see listed in the completed book’s table of contents.

As far as what was excluded, there was some repetition — perhaps due to the onset of Macdonald’s Alzheimer’s. There were also exchanges that didn’t go anywhere, discussions that Paul and Macdonald had to work their way through in order to get to the essence of what they were talking about.

Paul Nelson made a strong impression on a lot of people. Might you describe what forms it took? Was he a taste-shaper for friends? An influence on writers? A mentor?

Paul was undoubtedly an influential figure among his circle of friends, but that circle grew smaller and smaller as the years went by and Paul’s personal and financial problems grew. He was certainly at his most influential during the four years or so that he was record-review editor at Rolling Stone, from 1978 to 1982. It’s seemingly impossible to talk to any of the writers who wrote for him during this period without having them attest to his editing skills and the many ways he encouraged and influenced them.

He was also a figure of some mystery, what with his ever-present dark glasses, newsboy cap, and Nat Sherman Cigarettello dangling from his lip. Another thing that set him apart was his age; Paul was probably a good 10 years older than most of the writers he worked with. Plus, he didn’t advertise his accomplishments. Until he appeared in Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, many of his friends and colleagues didn’t know that he had a relationship with Bob Dylan, or that Paul had been at Newport in 1965 when Dylan went electric.

How do you think Paul Nelson and Ross Macdonald got along, “matched up”?

Macdonald had spent more time in academia than Paul had, but this didn’t prevent them from exploring their subjects in depth. Macdonald refused to answer a question unless it was well defined, and several times would ask Paul to restate it until it was to his liking. Even if he did find a question acceptable, Macdonald might take 10, 20, 30 seconds or more before responding. As a result, there’s a lot of dead air on those interview recordings. And whereas Macdonald didn’t open his mouth until he knew exactly what he wanted to say, Paul was comfortable sometimes thinking out loud. When Macdonald finally spoke, it was with a loud, clear voice; Paul was a very erudite mumbler.

One of the most interesting sections, for me, is the mention of Linwood Barclay, now an internationally best-selling author, who as a teen in Canada was mentored by mail by Ross Macdonald. Macdonald spoke to Paul Nelson with enthusiasm and delight about the talent of this young fellow who wrote to him out of the blue.

I’m glad you like that passage; I do too. And I’m glad that Macdonald’s “enthusiasm and delight” is apparent on the page. Answering Paul’s question as to whether he received a lot of manuscripts via the mail from young writers, he said “every now and then I get a real honey” and cited the short novel Barclay, who was a junior at a Canadian university at the time, had sent him. Macdonald was not a man given to easy elation, but he was clearly tickled and impressed by what Barclay had accomplished in the midst of all his other classwork.

Was it your plan from the first to include illustrations from Jeff Wong’s phenomenal collection of Ross Macdonald material? Did you realize how beautifully the art would complement the text? Who designed and laid out the book? Who enabled such a lavish production?

The initial idea for the book came from Fantagraphics Books publisher Gary Groth. He was proofing the manuscript for my first book, Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, and, when he read that there were these tens of hours of unpublished interviews out there with Ross Macdonald, shot me an email saying, “Let’s publish ’em.” At that point, we were both envisioning the same thing, I think: a collection of interviews between a legendary rock critic and one of the world’s most important detective novelists. That was back in 2010.

Fast-forward to 2014, around the time I delivered the finished manuscript of It’s All One Case to Gary. Not counting the footnotes, it clocked in at about 147,000 words. Jeff Wong was already on board to design the book, as he had done with Everything Is an Afterthought. It’s important here to note that Jeff and Paul had been friends back in the early ’90s, brought together by their shared admiration for Macdonald’s books. Even more importantly, Jeff maintains one of the world’s largest private archives of Macdonald collectibles, occupying some 80 or so feet of shelf space. In fact, back when I was working on the first book, Jeff was the one who had generously provided me with copies of Paul’s interview recordings with Macdonald.

Jeff suggested that, rather than publishing It’s All One Case as just another interview book, we illustrate it with images of the countless book covers, manuscripts, letters, and photos from his archive. He put together a slideshow displaying the wide variety of images he had to offer. I was convinced and so was Gary, who took it to the next level and committed to publishing the book in an oversized format to accommodate all of the visuals. And, since 2015 marked the centenary of Macdonald’s birth, this seemed to be a fitting way to commemorate the event. The book was to hit the stands in the fall of that year. Unfortunately, a couple of deadlines were missed and that didn’t happen. In all fairness, I don’t think Gary and I ever appreciated the scope of what Jeff had in mind. When we saw the final result, we understood why it had taken so long. Not only had he included over 1,300 images and taken pains to place them so that they complemented the text of the interviews, he had also composed detailed captions for a great number of them.

None of this, what with the book’s special layout and printing demands, would have been possible without the extraordinary support — to say nothing of patience — of publisher Gary Groth.

Previously, you edited a book of Paul’s interviews with Clint Eastwood; before that, you wrote Paul’s biography, which included pieces he’d written on various popular-culture figures. How did Ross Macdonald fit in with or compare to those other artists — as a person, an artist, an intellect?

Paul had impeccable taste. The artists he chose to write about — whether it be Macdonald the writer, or Eastwood the actor-director, or singer-songwriters like Bruce Springsteen or Warren Zevon or Jackson Browne — were almost without fail remarkably intelligent and articulate individuals, at the forefront of their art.

What do you think of the content of Macdonald’s conversation, the quality and workings of his mind?

Macdonald’s ability to speak knowledgably about a wide array of subjects was impressive, but he never comes across as if he’s showing off. He simply states what he knows and, to his credit, goes out of his way to make it clear if his knowledge of a subject is limited. What was heartbreaking were the times when his mind failed him and he couldn’t locate what he wanted to say. Some of these instances could be written off to his simply having “drawn a blank,” but they could also be attributed to the Alzheimer’s disease that eventually took his life seven years later, in 1983.

How did Paul come to accumulate these other interviews, for instance the Eastwood material? Did he have magazine assignments pegged to them?

They were always based on magazine assignments, but not without Paul having a committed interest in the artist in the first place. For example, he was an ardent fan of Eastwood. His 1972 review of Dirty Harry in Rolling Stone was one of the few positive considerations the film received in a major US publication. In it, he accurately predicted that Clint would be a “major force in the films of the next decade, both as an actor and a director.” In 1979, he convinced Rolling Stone that a full-fledged cover story on Eastwood would find favor with the magazine’s readers. But, of course, that never happened because Paul was never able to get beyond page four of his manuscript.

Were you a reader of Macdonald’s books, as a younger person? When did you read his fiction (assuming you did, in time)?

I am embarrassed to admit, in spite of all of Paul’s influence on me, I never read any of the Macdonald novels until I was researching my first book. At that point I read them all, one after another. I couldn’t get enough. Reading his books brought me immense pleasure tinged with shame for not having enjoyed them all sooner.

How and to what degree was Paul important to you? Why did you become so involved with his unpublished (and published) work?

I began reading his work, mostly in the pages of Rolling Stone, when I was a teenager growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Kit Rachlis — I read all those rock critics, but I kept returning to Paul’s articles and reviews. His writing was elegantly literate for rock ’n’ roll criticism and was clearly influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hammett, Chandler, and — although I didn’t know it at the time — Ross Macdonald. His voice was confident, funny, and, writing about the New York Dolls, he could get away with saying things like, “Like all good romantics, they had destroyed everything they touched.”

To what degree was he important to me? I never threw away any magazine or newspaper that contained his work. Shortly before moving to New York in 2005 and to lighten my load, I sat down with this huge pile of publications — years’ and years’ worth — and tore out the pages with Paul’s articles and reviews. At that point I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with them, but I knew that I had to keep them and put them to some sort of use. His writing still moved me, and it killed me that his work was all but forgotten.

Do you have favorite Macdonald novels? Which, and why?

In no particular order, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Ivory Grin, The Underground Man, and Sleeping Beauty. He just seems to be at the top of his game in those books. That being said, somebody commented online recently that the books can be read as all of one piece — “all one case,” so to speak. I agree with that.

What are some of your favorite illustrations in the book?

With no disrespect to Jeff and all of the great images he contributed, my favorite doesn’t come from the archive at all; it’s the color photograph that Jill Krementz took of her late husband, Kurt Vonnegut, with Ross Macdonald on a beach in California. It’s just beautiful. In addition, Jill was kind enough to make available to us a number of black-and-white photos that she shot in New York City and Santa Barbara in May 1974. Many of them are published in the book for the first time anywhere.

As far as Jeff’s archive is concerned, my favorite images are, without a doubt, the glorious color reproductions of the covers of Macdonald’s books in all their various international editions. They’re a treat to look at and evoke the different times in which they were published. I can look at them over and over.

Were you surprised, perhaps impressed, by the content and quality and style of Macdonald’s answers?

Yes. In each case, again and again. I was repeatedly amazed by the breadth of his answers. He was so well read and consequently his answers were so well informed. There was a wisdom there, too. It reminded me of something the critic Dave Marsh, who participated in an early interview session, said about Paul: “He was a wise person, and you never have enough of those in your life.”

More than anything, though, I was blown away by his answers pertaining to the craft of writing. Gary picked up on this, too, when he read the manuscript for the first time. He sent me an email saying, “This is some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever read!”


Tom Nolan is a crime fiction reviewer and the author and editor of several books, including Ross Macdonald: A Biography.