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Audio Books

May 2006 Interview

with J.T. McDaniel

The premise of this interview was that horror author, editor, and philosopher Jacob Thomson was interviewing me via AOL Instant Messenger. As Thomson is a pen name of mine, obviously that was just an artifice, and I was actually interviewing myself. Or, since questions were being asked in both directions, perhaps I was interviewing myself interviewing myself. Perhaps equally obviously, a lot of Thomson’s personal background is as fictional as the books “he” wrote. I’m keeping the format anyway.

Thomson: What are you working on now?
McDaniel: I’ve got several projects going on at the moment. In the American Submarine War Patrol Reports series, I’ve just sent Argonaut, a dual volume including both the original SM-1 and the late war SS-475, to the printers. So now I’m working on getting Trigger (SS-237) ready for publication. This one has been delayed a couple of times, but it’s definitely going to be next.

Thomson: What sort of delays?
McDaniel: First, when I initially started on it, I realized that I didn’t have anything on Trigger’s participation in the Battle of Midway. Granted, this was more or less limited to running aground, and it wasn’t an official war patrol, but this was her initial combat assignment, so I felt it should be included, if only to see how [Trigger CO] Jack Lewis would write it up.

Thomson: Expecting some interesting insights?
McDaniel: According to Ned Beach, who had the deck at the time of the grounding, it occurred because Lewis was wearing red goggles to preserve his night vision. Unfortunately, the reef was printed on the chart in red ink, which became invisible when viewed through the red goggles. So by the time the breakers were spotted in the dark it was too late to do much more than throw the motors into reverse and hope they didn’t hit too hard.

Thomson: Did they?
McDaniel: Hard enough. They were stuck on the reef for most of the next day, had to be pulled off by a tug, and Trigger lost her fathometer head. That wasn’t actually fixed until after they finished their first war patrol, up in the Aleutians. Ned Beach once wrote that he suspected that this lack of any practical way of determining water depth other than casting a hand lead was why they were sent to the Aleutians instead of a more productive area. On the other hand, considering he had the deck when they ran aground, he was sort of grateful he didn’t get blamed, despite the fact that the captain had started giving orders, thereby taking the deck.

Thomson: So waiting for the report of those events delayed finishing the book?
McDaniel: Among other things. As it turned out, I never did manage to find the report. It’s possible it never made it to the National Archives. There are several actual patrol reports for various boats that are still missing from their collection. In the interim, I edited the reports for U.S.S. Barb (SS-220). There was a certain feeling that these needed to be done as soon as practical, if only because her wartime commander, Gene Fluckey, is still alive, but quite old and in poor health. One of his officers, Tuck Weaver, wrote a Foreword for that volume. (Fluckey died June 28, 2007.)

Thomson: What else are you working on?
McDaniel: There’s another novel in the works.

Thomson: More submarines?
McDaniel: Yes. This one is set aboard the fictional U.S.S. Mako, a Mackerel class boat. Only two of these were actually built, but I decided to create a third. These were smaller than the fleet boats, and the fictional one, like the real ones, spent the war in the Atlantic. Parts of the story are also set aboard a German Typ VIIc U-boat. Most of the story takes place off the east coast of the United States, and the most important part of the action is confined to a period of only a few hours.

Thomson: The last one covered several years. Why such a short time in this one?
McDaniel: Goes along with the plot. The real Mackerels were mostly used for coastal patrols and as training boats at the Submarine School in Groton. Crews rotated through fairly rapidly, as they were much more useful out in the Pacific. You don’t have the opportunity for long-term service in the same boat that was possible in Bacalao, where some of the officers and crew who were there while she was being built were still aboard almost four years later.

But the big reason is that almost all the action takes place after Mako and U-359 spot each other. They naturally submerge, which at the time was the safest thing to do, as submarines had no way of shooting at each other if they couldn’t see each other. This was before anyone had developed the type of anti-submarine homing torpedoes we have today. The U-boat just wants to get away, but Mako doesn’t want to let her go.

Thomson: Wouldn’t it be safer all around if she did?
McDaniel: Sure. But about the only real targets our coastal patrol subs ever had during the war were U-boats. No German surface combatants came anywhere near the American coast after the war started, and the only merchant traffic in the area was friendly. If you found a German sub, you didn’t want to let it get away. But it was obviously risky. If you had two boats submerged close to each other, there was a pretty good chance that whichever surfaced first was going to take a torpedo from the other. Battery life limited submerged time for both sides, this story being before German subs were routinely fitted with snorkels to allow running the diesels and charging the batteries under water.

Thomson: I presume that would have given the U-boat an advantage?
McDaniel: Maybe. It might also have given the American boat something to aim at. The only case of one submerged submarine sinking another during World War II was one boat shooting at another’s periscope. The guys on Mako really want to sink that U-boat. They figure it’s worth taking a considerable risk to get him.

Thomson: Do they?
McDaniel: You’ll have to read the book.

Thomson: When will we be able to do that?
McDaniel: When it’s finished. (Note: Which, as a novel, it never was. The story, titled “Eighteen Hours,” is published in my short story collection, Blackout & Other Stories.) I’m not a particularly fast writer, and I’ve got a strong tendency to re-write everything several times, until I’m fairly happy with the result.

Thomson: Only fairly happy?
McDaniel: I’ve never been completely happy with anything. But at a certain point I can convince myself that the work is about as good as it’s likely to get. That’s the point you’ll see it, of course. And there are some other things competing for my time, too.

Thomson: Such as?
McDaniel: There are several books in various stages of completion that I’m either editing or considering as additions to the Riverdale line. Arthur Baudzus’ memoirs are nearly ready for publication. He tells a good story. There aren’t that many men who actually escaped from a sunken submarine after it hit the bottom. I’m not sure there are any others who did it without escape gear. (The Nazi, now out of print. The title was ironic.)

There are a couple of other books I’m also considering. A new edition of a previously published (by someone else) book on early missile subs (Up From the Deep: the Return, by Robert K. Harmuth); a new novel by one of our current writers; a really good book from a popular singer-song writer (Tango Charlie, by Tommy Cox).

Thomson: Where do you find time to write your own books?
McDaniel: This is one reason it takes me so long. And, just to add an extra complication, I’m also working on a children’s book about several kids at the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor in the period just before the war.

Thomson: I thought you had a policy against doing kids’ books?
McDaniel: Technically, yes, that policy exists. At least, regarding little kids’ books, with full page illustrations on every page, not much text, and usually not even thick enough to have a real spine. This is more of a children’s novel, with maybe a handful of illustrations setting off what’s predominantly a full length novel. Honestly, it may appeal as much to adults as to kids. It’s just that they’ll likely get different things out of it.

Thomson: So this one has kids and submarines? How do you get a kid on a sub? Were they allowed?
McDaniel: Kids and subs, yes. I got the idea from an admiral who mentioned something along those lines from his own childhood. He was a Navy junior whose father commanded a submarine at Pearl Harbor during the immediate pre-war period. But, no, they weren’t allowed aboard when the boats were at sea. In Pearl, tied up at the base, it seems the boys, mostly officer’s kids, got to use them as a sort of giant, nautical playground. I doubt that anything like that happens now, and it stopped once the war started even back then.

Thomson: What about the girls?
McDaniel: My friend said, essentially, it may not have been fair, but girls didn’t get to play in that crowd. Not really unusual given the time period. Even when I was a kid fifteen to twenty years later things like Little League were boys only. Of course, back in those days, if you wore a Cub Scout or Boy Scout uniform to school, you had a Scout knife hanging off your belt, and when you weren’t wearing a uniform you almost always carried a pocket knife. No one got murdered, strangely enough.

Thomson: And you think adults will like this, too? Does that happen?
McDaniel: Sure. Look at the Harry Potter books. They’re written for children, but probably as many or more are bought and read by adults. I suspect they get different things from the stories, mind you. It’s a bit like reading Gulliver’s Travels. To a kid, it’s a great adventure story, with tiny little people in one land, giants in another, talking horses, and all sorts of wild, improbable adventures. An adult gets that as well, but the adult is also likely to recognize the book as a satire on the British political system of the period.

Thomson: Wasn’t there some controversy about the Harry Potter books in your area recently?
McDaniel: Near where I live, anyway. My “area” is southwest Florida, but I have to make a living and that means living in Atlanta.

Thomson: What was the fuss about?
McDaniel: The usual sort of thing. Someone wanted them pulled out of the school libraries because they “encouraged” witchcraft, and because there continues to exist a subset of Christians who believe they have both a right and an obligation to dictate the behavior of everyone else.

Thomson: Do you personally think the Potter books encourage witchcraft?
McDaniel: Not particularly. For one thing, despite being “magical,” there nothing in the Potter books that really suggests the witches and wizards who populate them think of wizardry as a religion. It’s simply something they can do and Muggles can’t. If you by the primary holidays at Hogwarts, which are Christmas and Easter, you’d sort of have to conclude that these magical people are mostly some sort of Christian.

And, of course, the notion that “real” witches are Satan worshippers is just silly. It’s not really an either-or type of thing. Not being a Christian doesn’t automatically make someone a devil worshipper. They might be a polytheist without a devil in sight, or a nature worshipper, an animist of some sort, which is what most actual witches seem to be.

In any case, the magic in the Harry Potter books seems to me to be the vehicle, not the driver. The central themes are pretty universal—good versus evil, totalitarianism versus personal freedom, the obvious errors and self-justifications of racism and racist types.

Thomson: Sounds pretty deep.
McDaniel: Good children’s literature usually is. Look at Grimm. Hansel and Gretel was essentially about abandonment, a not at all unusual fate for children a couple hundred years ago. Then you throw in a witch, who also happens to be a cannibal, and who lives in a delightfully appealing gingerbread house. Evil wrapped in an attractive package. Cinderella’s step-sisters mutilate themselves in their efforts to fit their big feet into the tiny slipper, and then end up having their eyes pecked out by birds. Some of the stories, ones that are often left out of modern collections, like The Jew Among Thorns, sound as if they were written by a Nazi. Most of them have somebody dying, being murdered, or both. The Brother Grimm collection is, on the whole, fairly, well, grim. A lot of people die. A lot of people die in the Potter books, too, particularly as the series continues.

Thomson: You’ve read them, I take it?
McDaniel: Yes. As I said, adults probably get something different from them than children. Voldemort’s ideas of leadership, for instance, are essentially a form of Führerprinzip, but a kid is more likely to just think he’s a thoroughly bad guy who always insists on getting his own way and kills anyone who doesn’t want to let him. There’s a fairly obvious similarity between the Death Eaters and the SS. As far as the racial concepts of the bad guys, just substitute “Aryan” for “old wizarding family” or “pure blood wizard” and you get the idea what the bad guys are like.

Thomson: How did the local thing end up?
McDaniel: The Gwinnet County School Board, to their credit, voted unanimously to keep the books in the libraries. The good guys won that one, but the bad guys haven’t given up. They’ll be trying other avenues to force people to do what they want.

Thomson: Would you let your children read them?
McDaniel: Sure. I’ve bought them for my children.

Thomson: May we presume you’re generally against censorship?
McDaniel: Nearly always. I can see the need for censorship when there’s a security question, such as the way the military censored soldier’s mail during wartime.

Thomson: I remember that. A lot of my letters went home with holes cut in them where I’d written something the censor didn’t like.
McDaniel: And probably with good reason. But censoring ideas, even bad ideas, is usually not only wrong, but counter-productive. I once struggled through Mein Kampf, and the main result was a conviction that Hitler was not only wrong about most things, but was also a lousy writer.

Thomson: Glad you think so. He’s even worse in German, by the way.
McDaniel: I took German in grade school, but I can’t say I remember much of it. Mostly I remember that German has a tendency to use overly long sentences and to make very long words out of little ones.

Thomson: Now, you just emailed me the picture you plan to use with this interview. I don’t remember you having different colored eyes.
McDaniel: The blue one is an optical illusion caused by the flash reflecting off my glasses. My eyes are both brown, and very dark brown at that. The rapid graying and vanishing hair, and the white beard, unfortunately are accurate. I keep expecting to see this handsome young fellow in the mirror and this old geezer is standing there instead.

Thomson: How’s the family?
McDaniel: Richard, the oldest boy, is out of school and building up his own business as a graphic designer and 3D animator. (Note: Richard now works for Cinecolor in Bogota, doing animation, CG effects, and film restoration, and has been credited as effects supervisor on several films.) I got him to do the cover for Ron Martini’s Submariner’s Dictionary, which was a pretty straight-forward design for a reference/humor book, where the contents would obviously be the primary selling point. He did a much more sophisticated 3D cover for Joshua Scribner’s horror novel, Eleven O”clock Fright. The other kids are still in school, so I’ll let them have their privacy a while longer. Richard can use the publicity.

Thomson: What’s with the plaid tie? A bit garish, isn’t it?
McDaniel: MacDonald tartan. The McDaniels are a sept of the MacDonald clan. The tie is about as Scottish as I get, of course, unless I’m fooling around with a phony accent. We’ve lived here since before the Revolution, and some of my ancestors in the female line of the earliest McDaniel I’ve been able to find were living in Virginia by the second decade of the 1600s. I’m a non-hyphenated American, when you come right down to it. We predate the country.

Thomson: Backing up a little, at one point there you sounded as if you don’t like living in Atlanta all that much.
McDaniel: I don’t. And that I mean the metro area, not necessarily the city itself, which for the most part I only pass through on my way to and from work.

Thomson: What’s wrong with it?
McDaniel: One of the big problems is that it was filled up several years ago, but they keep letting more people in anyway. You grew up and lived in New York—do you remember those maximum occupancy signs in restaurants and other public buildings?

Thomson: Sure. Occupancy by more than such and such a number persons is dangerous and unlawful.
McDaniel: Right, those. Well, imagine a restaurant where the sign says maximum occupancy is 150 people, but the manager says, “Oh, heck, let’s let in another 2,000 people—it won’t hurt ‘em to have to line up to get into the john.” That’s Atlanta. Except that after the extra people are all inside, they send a guy out front so he can pull in some more. I don’t think anyone cares, really. You have to figure comfort and safety isn’t a very high priority in an area where they build sixteen unit apartment buildings out of wood, then express surprise when a small kitchen fire takes out the entire building. That seems to happen about once a week, but no one has yet taken the trouble to impose the obvious fix and require multi-family buildings be masonry with real firewalls, say a minimum four hour rated, between every unit.

Thomson: What’s your place built with?
McDaniel: Masonry building, but the interior is wood. The place was built in the 1960s, of course. The codes should have caught up with the times by now, though. Fireproof construction is hardly a new idea. Most big cities have been requiring it since the 1930s. Anyway, the fire hazards are a minor problem. Traffic is the big one. There are two basic driving speeds in Atlanta, 25 mph over the limit and parking lot. I sort of miss the places where you could drive at the speed limit and not have to worry about getting run over.

Thomson: So why stay, then?
McDaniel: Not enough people buy books, mostly. I suspect the single most important reason that people live in places they hate is the need to make a living. And when you’ve got kids you can’t just quit and hope for the best somewhere else. Give me an income that isn’t tied to a specific location and I’d be gone pretty quickly.

Thomson: Well, writing isn’t tied to a particular location, so it’s just a matter of increasing sales, right?
McDaniel: Right. That’s the hard part of writing. As difficult as it might be to get the words down on paper, convincing people to buy the books is even harder.

Thomson: You mentioned that you do a fair bit of re-writing. Don’t you ever just write something and that’s it? You just write the thing and that’s the end of it?
McDaniel: Rarely, these days. Back when I was working at the newspaper a lot of first drafts went straight from my typewriter to the Just-o-Writer operator,but the time constraints of a newspaper mean there’s very little time to polish hard news stories. Deadlines are a lot tougher at a newspaper—even a weekly. Of course, the readers are also somewhat less critical when it comes to the nuances of creative writing. They just want to know what happened at the city council meeting and how much this latest bright idea is going to cost them.

Thomson: Speaking of “just the facts” type material, I’ve read several of the war patrol books you edit. Now these aren’t my primary interests, but I’ve noticed a lot of the footnotes tend to be repeated in different books. Why is that?
McDaniel: When these reports were written during World War II, the writers—generally the captains—were writing with the certainty that everyone who read them would know just as much about the subject as they did. They were written by submariners for submariners or, at the very least, other Navy men with of knowledge of the lingo.

But when we set out to publish these reports for the general public, that was no longer the case. Some of the terminology might not even by all the familiar to a modern submariner, considering the huge differences in machinery and equipment between those old diesel boats and a modern nuclear submarine. Other terms have simply been obscured by time. It’s been nearly 61 years since the Japanese surrendered. So I’m working from the presumption that the average reader isn’t going to know little things like Navy hull number prefixes, or the American names for Japanese aircraft, or even something as basic to submarines as the function of, and the differences between, the negative, main ballast, fuel ballast, and trim tanks. I suspect a lot of the people who buy these books are the children or grand-children of the men who served in the original boats, so while they certainly have an interest in the events, they may never have personally served in the military.

Thomson: Which is why you define terms like “AK” and “DD” in every volume?
McDaniel: Exactly. The other factor I have to consider is that many people will buy one particular volume—say the boat that Grandpa served in—but none of the others. The fact that taken together these books constitute a set doesn’t mean that most won’t be purchased as single volumes. So if I define a particular term in one book, I can’t presume that someone reading a different volume will have seen the note. Instead, there’s a possibility that, if I don’t repeat the definition, some poor guy is going to read a full set of patrol reports wondering just what the “marus” people keep talking about might be, or why the heck it was important to sink an “AK” but more important to sink an “AO.”

Thomson: Anything new in your personal life?
McDaniel: It’s pretty much the same as always. I don’t have one. I’m either working, commuting, or writing most of the time, and when I’m not doing one of these things I watch a lot of television. That will probably change now, though, because the regular network seasons are mostly ending and re-runs don’t have the same appeal. The end of the season for Las Vegas does, at least, mean I get to catch up on what’s left of the first season of the new Doctor Who, which is on at the same time. Plenty of DVDs, naturally, to help fill in the gaps.

Thomson: Favorite shows?
McDaniel: Probably CSI, all three of them, though I tend to think the original is generally the best. (Note: Apparently an opinion shared by CBS; only the original CSI is still on the air in 2014.) Maybe I’ve just had longer to get used to that cast, as they’ve been around the longest and, unlike most long running shows, there have been very few major cast changes. Some minor characters come and go, but the primary people are still the same.

NCIS is a lot of fun, but so are most of Don Bellisario’s shows, even if the military ones do play a little loose with the way things really work. Still, any military based show that’s 100% accurate probably wouldn’t be very interesting. JAG would have been pretty boring if all Harm ever did was file motions and argue on behalf of guys who overstayed their leave by a couple days.

Numb3rs is good, and Criminal Minds is outstanding. Mind you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mandy Patinkin give a bad performance, even when someone gives him some fairly awful material. Las Vegas is also a favorite and, curiously, one of the few that isn’t on CBS.

Another favorite is Craig Ferguson’s Late, Late Show, though I only get to watch it on Friday nights, as I have to get up at 5:30 am during the rest of the week. I enjoyed the show when Tom Snyder was doing it, didn’t really care all that much when Kilbourne was hosting, but Ferguson, I think, may just be the best talk show host around these days.

Thomson: Any particular reason? I agree he’s good, but why do you like him, particularly?
McDaniel: I think a big part of it is that he just comes across as the sort of guy you’d like to hang around with. I’ve also noticed that when he interviews authors, which he seems to do a lot more often than the others, he generally sounds like he’s actually read the books, instead of just posing a series of questions put together by some staff member. You also get the feeling that he really likes talking to his guests. That it’s not just a job. I remember catching his first guest/trial host gig on the show, and thinking that he was not only very good, but surprisingly restrained. I guess because the only other time I’d seen him on a talk show—scripted stuff like Drew Carey really doesn’t give much of an impression of the real person—I’d found myself thinking that here was a guy who actually made Billy Connolly look dignified and restrained. Maybe he was still drinking back then. He’s still edgy, but in a more controlled way.

Thomson: Any other shows you like, or even find yourself addicted to?
McDaniel: Most of the Star Trek incarnations, with the exception of Deep Space Nine, which I watched on a fairly irregular basis but never really got into. Enterprise was good most of the time, but I think they’d have been be better off doing fewer multi-part stories. I’ve already mentioned Doctor Who, of course. Then there are show such as This Old House, and Hometime, and I really enjoy John Ratzenberger’s Made in America series. The only problem I have with the last one is that it doesn’t seem as if they make enough new shows each season. The only TV addiction is probably Smallville.

Thomson: One we share. What did you think of the finale this season?
McDaniel: It’s going to be interesting to see how they resolve this one. You sort of know that Clark will eventually get out of the Phantom Zone, find a way to save his mother and Lois, and defeat Zod. How they’re going to put Lex back into his body is a little harder to figure. I suppose we’ll see in the fall. To the good, the show is very popular, so at least it isn’t likely it will end up like Alien Nation, where the season finale ends with a huge cliffhanger and then, next thing you know, the show is canceled during the summer and everything is left unresolved.

Thomson: Something like real life, you mean?
McDaniel: Yes. But television is supposed to be better organized than reality.