FSM: You say you are first and foremost a novelist. But, what prompted you to write so much nonfiction? You've had hundreds of articles, reviews, and essays published, much of it appearing on Family Security Matters.Cline: While writing the novels, those were occasional projects I pursued when I had the spare time and energy, and when I was invited to submit articles. I've written pieces for the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, McGraw-Hill's Western Civilization, the Journal of Information Ethics, Reason Magazine, The Social Critic, The Intellectual Activist, The Wall Street Journal, Marine Corps League, The Library Journal, The Journal of Colonial Williamsburg, and The Armchair Detective, among other publications. Over the last few years I've contributed to Rule of Reason, Capitalism Magazine, and, of course, Family Security Matters. Often my pieces are picked up by other weblogs, from here to Israel and India. Since finishing the Sparrowhawkseries, I've had time and energy on my hands. It's got to be spent somehow, somewhere, productively. I can't sit still when there are so many issues to address.
FSM: Why do you think it's necessary to address those issues?Cline: Because I think I can bring a measure of reason to them. And because it's in the way of catharsis, of letting off steam. If I didn't write about them, I'd blow up. I don't want to be confined in a state-run rubber room wearing a straightjacket.
FSM: You've published a collection of your columns.Cline: I've published three collections: Broadsides in the War of Ideas, Running Out My Guns, and Corsairs and Freebooters. They're print books as well being on Kindle. They contain articles and essays on politics, Obama's rise to stardom (stage-managed by George Soros), Islam and the threat it poses to the West, the Federalization of language (i.e., politically correct speech) and various cultural topics, such as the wholly bogus depictions of Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus. I'm thinking of compiling a fourth collection, tentatively called Boarding Parties.
FSM: How long have you been writing novels? Or, for that matter, how long have you been writing anything?
Cline: I wrote two clunkers before finishing my first polished novel, Whisper the Guns. I don't even have the manuscripts of the first two novels – I disposed of my copies ages ago, I didn't want them around – although incredibly, I found an agent who represented them, a fellow by the name of Oscar Collier (he died in 1998). Those clunkers were my first efforts. One, In the Land of the Pharaohs, was set in a future American dictatorship, and was about a police detective who's assigned to help a Federal agent find the gang that robbed the Federal Reserve Bank of its gold bullion. The second was a suspense novel about an American businessman, Merritt Fury, rescuing a woman kidnapped by the Polish Communists. He breaks into the Polish Consulate and causes a lot of mayhem. I can't now recall its title or even how it ended.
Mr. Collier couldn't find publishers for the clunkers, however. Whisperwas eventually published in 1992 by The Atlantean Press, a small publisher based in California. It was about to publish the second in that series, We Three Kings, when it went under. It had republished two of Victor Hugo's novels, Toilers of the Sea, and The Man Who Laughs. I wrote the introduction to The Man Who Laughs. Whisper, of course, went out of print. The Atlantean Press editions of those novels aren't even listed on Amazon Books. I find copies of Whisper now going for $150 or more from bookstores connected with Amazon Books. I finally republishedWhisper on Kindle two years ago and recently as a print book, and later We Three Kings. The third and last in that series, Run From Judgment, sees Fury being targeted for assassination by some unknown person. He winds up marrying a British portrait painter and inheriting a financial weekly much like Barron's, the U.S.'s leading financial weekly.
FSM: Isn't We Three Kings about Arabs?
Cline: Yes. I finished that novel in 1980. Readers have said it was pretty prescient, because in 1980 the Saudis weren't much in the news. I wouldn't call it "prescient." As a culture watcher, I'd made a habit to observe fundamental trends, and our obvious, obscene, and obsequious behavior to the Sauds was hard to ignore.
The story? This Saudi sheik has bought up all these rare gold coins to use in a museum in Riyadh. The last one is owned by an American, who won't sell it, and the sheik sics his nephew on him to terrorize him into surrendering it. Fury rescues the man during this mugging, killing the nephew during the fight. The man, Crenshaw, gives the coin to Fury in the way of appreciation. Then he's murdered. The sheik, who's also something or other at the U.N., is given carte blanche to deal with Fury as he pleases by the State Department. In the meantime, a homicide detective, Wade Lambert, works to prove that Fury murdered the nephew. He winds up siding with Fury and is suspended from the police force and goes into hiding before he's kidnapped by the sheik. There are more murders, and no plot spoilers here. Fury triumphs in the end.
FSM: What were you doing in the meantime, while writing all these novels?
Cline: Making a living. I held numerous jobs on Wall Street, in insurance, banking, for Icelandic Airlines, and so on, working chiefly as a teletype agent for all these firms. I also worked as a reader for a few publishers. My work life enabled me to pursue my life work, my novels. The only break in that period I had was when I moved to East Lansing, Michigan, and Michigan State University, to research my first detective novel, With Distinction. Wade Lambert was the progenitor of Chess Hanrahan, a detective who solves what I call "moral paradoxes." With Distinction is set in the philosophy department of a fictive university. A philosophy professor is murdered, and Chess can't believe that anyone would want to murder such a person. As he investigates, he learns why. In that novel he's the chief of police of this university town. Then in First Prize, the second in the series, I move him to New York as a private detective. In this one he solves the murder of a prize-winning novelist. The third in that series, Presence of Mind, pits him against the denizens of diplomacy. The fourth and last in that series, Honors Due, has him playing cat-and-mouse with some Hollywood types over the murder of a scholar.
First Prize was originally published by the Mysterious Press/Warner Books in 1988. Otto Penzler, the publisher, was the power behind that break and published it against the wishes of his editors. At the time, it was represented by George Ziegler, whom I called the last "gentleman" agent in the business. It was even reviewed in The New York Times. It was in print for years before lapsing. First editions of it are now going for some pretty outlandish prices. Perfect Crime Books has now published the whole Hanrahan series.
FSM: What was it like, dealing with publishers, trying to interest them in your books?
Cline: Publishing seems to have always been in a state of flux, completely rudderless in terms of literature and literary standards, although it usually followed intellectual trends, such as the French deconstructionists or the New School Progressives or the Postmodern Realists and Surrealists. One really couldn't decide who was running the "literary" show: critics such as Stanley Fish (a postmodernist Marxist) and Edmond Wilson (a leftist) and Granville Hicks (a leftist), or publishers such as Bennett Cerf (of Random House) and George Delacorte, or editors and teachers such as Hiram Haydn. Compounding the confusion have been successive generations of aspiring writers and editors expectorated from university humanities courses, whose literary senses have been stripped of all standards and value and whose only ambition was to make names for themselves as arbiters of literature and culture. I remember that when I was a reader for a few publishing houses, invariably the trash I called trash in my reports was published, and the books I thought had promise or showed a glimmer of intelligence, were consigned to the slush piles. I lasted a year in that racket.
FSM: Were you still working in New York?
Cline: No. By the time First Prize was published, I had moved to Palo Alto, California. I had accepted a job offer there with a free market think tank, the Institute for Humane Studies. I finished the rest of the Hanrahan novels there, on an IBM Selectric typewriter, which I still have. When IHS moved to George Mason University a year later, I elected to stay on in Palo Alto, where I made my living working for various Silicon Valley software firms and other companies. While at IHS some of my nonfiction writing was published and even syndicated in various newspapers. I even wrote four book reviews for The Wall Street Journal.
FSM: There's a third detective series of yours, isn't there?
Cline: Yes. This one is set in San Francisco in 1928 and 1929, and features Cyrus Skeen, a wealthy private eye who uses his cases to collect material for his short stories, which he writes under a pen name. Its genesis is peculiar. I was invited by Western Michigan University Press to write an article for an anthology of articles about detective and crime fiction. I wrote the piece, called "The Wizards of Disambiguation," which burst the balloons of various left-wing literary critics who alleged that Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falconwas a kind of proletarian novel. In the piece I prove that, while Hammett had Red sympathies, his hero, Sam Spade, wasn't some kind of signifying avatar of communist ideology and that all the Frankfurt School-inspired "deconstructive" interpretations of the novel were just so much hooey. The piece wasn't accepted. It turned out, I learned later on, that all the other essays in that anthology were written by left-wing critics. But the exercise led me to write an answer to The Maltese Falcon, set in the same week and year as Hammett's story, which was originally serialized in Black Mask Magazine in 1928. Thus was born China Basin, which I finished in 1990. Skeen is asked by a French countess and retired British officer to find Thomas Becket's chalice, stolen from them by a psychotic and very elusive killer. It's also an audio book, as are First Prize and Whisper the Guns.
FSM: And after that?
Cline: I had so much fun writing China Basin that I decided to continue the series. I felt that I could no longer set a detective story in my own time, what with political correctness gaining strength and the politics becoming more and more statist. Publishers were becoming leery of anything that went against political trends, not that any of them gave me a second look. Also, trying to force my heroes work within all the federal regulations and stifling laws brought me no joy or satisfaction. So I decided to set the next novels in a time when the hero had more freedom of thought and action. I finished The Head of Athena in 1992. In it, Skeen agrees to try to exonerate an atheist lecturer of the charge of murdering his ex-wife. Next came The Daedâlus Conspiracy in 2011, and lastly, The Chameleon, in 2012. Skeen takes on some very unusual cases in the last two, and his politics also become more evident. All are now published by the Patrick Henry Press as print books and are on Kindle.
FSM: Why is there such a big time gap between The Head of Athena and The Daedâlus Conspiracy? It's nearly twenty years!
Cline: For a long while I had been taking notes for a historical novel set in the pre-Revolutionary period. That period, I had decided, had not been justly or fairly represented in American fiction. I decided to do something about it. I wanted to dramatize why the Revolution happened, and not write just another costume period novel. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 caused me to think: If I'm ever going to write this novel, I had better start on it now, because politically and culturally, things can only get worse and I may not have a chance or even the freedom to write it. So, in 1993, I packed up my bags and moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, to begin researching and writing the series, Sparrowhawk. I finished it in 2005. It turned out to be six titles, plus a Companion to the series, published in 2007. The first title appeared in 2001. The series was published by MacAdam/Cage of San Francisco.
FSM: How did that come about?
Cline: To paraphrase Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (who was paraphrasing Prospero in The Tempest), it was the stuff that dreams are made of. In 2000 I had moved temporarily to Las Vegas to take a breather from working on the novel, which I had worked on steadily while working full time. I had sent out queries to publishers and agents about their interest in Sparrowhawk. No interest. I was in the middle of the fourth title of the series. I was feeling pretty despondent. I got a note from my retired agent, George Ziegler, suggesting I query MacAdam/Cage, a new publisher that that was looking for "quality fiction." I had heard that line before – I didn't think much of the "quality fiction" I saw was being published – but sent a query to the firm. They expressed interest. I submitted the first of the series. Before I knew it, I had a contract for the first four titles and a promised contract for the rest of the series. Book One: Jack Frake came out in 2001, the other titles consecutively up to 2007, as well as the trade soft covers.
FSM: So, it was smooth sailing from that point on?
Cline: No, it was rough seas and an un-prosperous voyage. My relationship with MacAdam/Cage blew hot and cold. They did a very nice job in designing and packaging the series, but did next to diddly to market it. If it sold, it sold on its own merits. It was a series that the reading public had to discover itself. Which it has, but with no help from the publisher. They did not know how to sell it. In addition, one of their readers thought that the hero of Book One, Jack Frake, was unbelievable, and thought he could be made more credible if I gave him an Oedipus complex or something. I said no deal, and if that meant no contract, that was fine with me. They gave in and never made another editorial suggestion.
The series became a revenue generating mainstay for the publisher. Then, shortly after the Companion came out, I stopped getting royalties. To make a long story short, I got no satisfaction from the publisher, and had to threaten legal action to get paid what was coming to me. This tug of war lasted some four years. The publisher's appetite was bigger than its ability to publish big time. It was buying some very trendy books and going into bidding wars against far bigger publishers, such as Random House and Harper/Collins, and paying writers fabulous advances. Their books did not sell. The publisher began suffering significant losses.
As well as my series was doing, it couldn't carry the whole firm. Behind all its backlist authors' backs, it sold the electronic or e-book rights of the whole backlist to a British publisher to keep afloat. I didn't learn about that until I put up the series myself on Kindle, with cleaned up texts, and was told that I was in violation of contract. So, down they came. I've patched things up with MacAdam since then – the relationship since then has been tepid at best – but now the publisher is negotiating the sale of the firm to some other outfit, and the future of Sparrowhawk is in question. For all I know – because the publisher won't answer my queries, which does not bode well for the future – it's a done deal. Publishers Weekly is looking into it.
FSM: What a rollercoaster ride!
Cline: You can say that again. Sparrowhawk represents a big chunk of my life. I had to fight for it. I may still need to fight for it.
FSM: What were your first published writings?
Cline: Aside from a handful of letters to the editor, my first "professional" writings were fillers for Barron's National and Financial Weekly, now just known as Barron's. I rewrote corporate press releases into bland short items, with no byline. They were intended to fill blank spaces that followed a regular column or news item.
FSM: How did you get that job?
Cline: I had just moved to New York City from California, and had worked for a few stock brokerages. I was in between jobs and on an impulse went into the Dow Jones building on Broad Street to see if the Wall Street Journal was hiring. The personnel department (not the "human resources" department) referred me to Barron's. They were looking for a "go-for." So, with some excitement, I went up upstairs and was interviewed by Robert Bleiberg, the editor-in-chief, and began the next day. I loved Bleiberg's editorials. They were consistently pro-freedom and harshly anti-government. I was hired as the paper's librarian, but soon was asked to write fillers, and then was sent out to cover press conferences and performed other minor editorial tasks. No bylines, however.
FSM: What other tasks?
Cline: Oh, proofing the writers' copy, running errands between Barron's and the Journal, even going for writers' lunches. I completely reorganized the paper's library. It was a mess. The writer at the desk in back of me was an elderly gentleman, either German or Austrian. I had long discussions with him about economics and political economy. He introduced me to Hayek and von Mises.
FSM: Why did you leave Barron's?
Cline: The assistant editor didn't like me, and I didn't like him. When Bleiberg was away on vacation, this editor managed to make it impossible for me to remain there, so I quit. It was so long ago, I can't recall the circumstances now.
FSM: What then?
Cline: While at Barron's, I volunteered to work for Nixon Campaign Headquarters on Park Avenue. I worked as a news reviewer. I watched the television evening news and wrote up reports on whether or not the coverage was pro- or anti-Nixon or pro- or anti-Humphrey. This was in 1968. When Nixon won, he had to leave the law firm he was a partner with, and I got to go next door to the Dow Jones building to wait with hundreds of other well-wishers in the lobby for him to come down from the law offices. I got to shake his hand. I'm still wiping the grease from it. Later, when he imposed wage and price controls, I swore I'd never work for another politician. And I never did.
FSM: Well, enough about your writing career. What about you? Ever married?
Cline: Never married. Had a few disastrous romances. Not much of a social life, because I've had little time for one. But, allow me to correct you. My career is my life. Anything outside of it is not the stuff that dreams are made of. I wouldn't presume to bore people with it.
FSM: Thank you, Mr. Cline.