Interviews

James M. Cain, The Art of Fiction No. 69

Interviewed by David Zinsser

James M. Cain, best known as the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce, was born in Maryland in 1892. After an army career and early aspirations of becoming a singer, as his mother had been, he was a reporter and journalist for many years in Baltimore and New York. His first story was published in H. L. Mencken's American Mercury. When The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared in print in 1934, it became an immediate best-seller. The next year Double Indemnity was equivalently successful, and Cain became known for something more than his early journalism or his Hollywood scripts. Today it is perhaps more through the films of his novels that we remember Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice was filmed with Lana Turner and John Garfield in Hollywood, and later (without authorization) in Italy as the basis of Luschine Visconti's first film Ossessione. Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, with a script by Raymond Chandler, is a classic thriller; Joan Crawford won an Academy Award for the lead role in Mildred Pierce.

Cain died October 31, 1977, in University Park, Maryland, near where he grew up, went to college, and taught. This interview was conducted on January 7, 1977, at his home—a small two-story frame house on a quiet street. The sitting room was furnished simply; an upright piano stood against a wall. Then eighty-five, Cain was gaunt, his voice raspy, but mentally he gave nothing away to his years. He lived alone in Hyattsville. His stationery bore a notice suggesting the reclusive and quiet nature of his last years: to those trying to get in touch with him by phone he had printed on the bottom of each page, “Station to station does it—there's nobody here but me.”

 

INTERVIEWER

So this is where you grew up?

JAMES M. CAIN

I was born in Annapolis. I lived there eleven years and then my father, who had been vice-president and a professor of English at St. John's College, became president of Washington College across the bay, which is still there. It's one of the old ones; George Washington contributed to its endowment. And that's where I went to college. The next four years I had a pretty rough time because I didn't know, nor did anyone else, that I was due to become a writer. I had several jobs that just made no sense. Suddenly I decided to be a singer, sending my mother nuts. She said I had nothing for it. Turned out she was right but she should have kept her flap shut and let me find out for myself. But then one day, just for no reason, I was sitting in Lafayette Park, and I heard my own voice telling me, “You're going to be a writer.” For no reason at all. Just like that. Now there had been signs. One sign nobody paid any attention to was when I was maybe ten years old. My father smoked Turkish Trophy cigarettes. At first he rolled his own, and then he bought ready-mades; each pack was in a black and red box; they were oval cigarettes with coupons in each pack. For seventy of these things you could get a fountain pen. I would send off seventy of these things and got a succession of fountain pens. You know how you filled fountain pens at that time, don't you? You unscrewed them and filled it with an eyedropper. Today, whenever I take out the clinical thermometer to take my temperature, I think of those pens and the eyedroppers. So the succession of fountain pens may have been an omen at the age of ten.

INTERVIEWER

Were there other signs?

CAIN

Well, when I went to Baltimore to work for the gas company, the first of the meaningless jobs I held when I was just out of college, I kept going down to this whorehouse on Saturday nights. I never did go upstairs, though twice I wanted to. One night I met this girl who was awful pretty, and she had pretty legs. I badly wanted to go upstairs with her, but I was afraid because of the disease which I imagined she had. (In Paris during the war I bumped into a girl, and I was horribly lonely, didn't particularly crave her physically, but she approached me, and asked me to spend the night, and I'm glad I didn't because I think she would have had my wallet with everything else.) But during this six months I worked for the gas company, I kept going down to that area around Josephine Street. At one of these places you could buy a bottle of beer for fifty cents. “Small as a whorehouse beer” was an expression then. They'd serve them up in glasses so small that thimbles were twice as big. For that fifty cents you were welcome to do anything, downstairs—get along with the girls, stick around—I was just eighteen years old. I listened a lot downstairs. Upstairs was another matter. I was a potential customer, of course. I guess the things you didn't do . . .

INTERVIEWER

What prompted your move to New York City, away from the Baltimore papers?

CAIN

In 1924, I had met Mencken in Baltimore. He gave me a lot of encouragement and published some pieces of mine in American Mercury. It's funny; people always take him at his own evaluation—an iconoclast, a mocker, a heaver of dead cats into the sanctuary. That's the way he put it one time, and he was certainly all those things. But a man who writes words knows that there comes a point when you have to ask: What's this guy for, what's he in favor of? I don't think Mencken would have lifted a finger to defend the rights of some colored man in Baltimore to get up and make a speech against the white society. But anyway he knew I wanted to work in New York, at the World. Actually, I talked myself into a job there by seeing Arthur Krock. I wanted to get this job on my own cheek; the guy respects you for that. Another thing, you get a much better job on your own cheek than if the guy gives you a job as a favor to whoever wrote the letter. Mencken gave me a letter of introduction which I never presented. But he loused me up. Without my knowing, he wrote Krock with the best intentions in the world, as he just loved me, and that crossed me up because I didn't get the job on my own after all. So Krock took me in to see Walter Lippmann. Lippmann wanted to know what I could do for a job, so I started talking with him. I told him I'd noticed that they didn't seem to have any articles on the editorial page of The New York World. I was just out of the lung house—I'd had tuberculosis—and I had to have a job that wouldn't involve too much walking around. So I suggested a job where I would just sit around and think up articles, ideas. I said I knew articles didn't grow on trees. Surely it was practically a full-time job, thinking up articles for a newspaper. I went on like this, with Lippmann staring at me while I tried to talk myself into a job. I knew I was getting somewhere in a direction altogether different, that he was listening to what I had to say, and though disregarding it, he was meditating. I thought, what the hell is with this guy? He interrupted to ask if I had any specimens of my writing. Writing, I thought, what has writing got to do with it? I was still talking about thinking up articles. Later, when we got to be easy friends, I asked him about this first interview and he said, I began to realize as I listened to you talk, that none of your infinitives were split, all of your pronouns were correct, and that none of your participles dangled. That was true. I talked the way my father had beat into me; he was a shot for style, and that's what got me a job.

INTERVIEWER

Don't you ever speak like your characters?

CAIN

I slip into the Vulgate every once in a while—an affectation I only half-understand. There I am speaking impeccable English and suddenly I lingo it up.

INTERVIEWER

What were your impressions of Lippmann?

CAIN

Nothing startling about him except the difference between the man and his literary style. On paper, Lippmann was always to my eye and ear a bit literary. He was so described when he died—people doubtless thought of him as a small nervous man. He was not small—but a big, stocky guy, very powerful, with thick, strong hands. He wrote in a microscopic hand, so small the printers had to put a glass on it to read it.

INTERVIEWER

What did he have you do on the World?

CAIN

I wrote editorials. Now this was tough, because I'd never read an editorial. Now this might amuse you: the first editorial I ever wrote. Miss Lasham, his tiny secretary, gave me a stack of New York papers to give me an idea, and an office and a typewriter. At least, the typewriter was an Underwood, which is the kind I like. Mr. Highland, from the typesetting office, said, Now here's a subject for you to write about—the Ruhr. Well, I said, sure I could write about it soon as I found out where it is. So I sat there in my office thinking, never read any goddamn editorials yet, and now I'm supposed to be writing one. Then it flitted through my mind what we always said in Sun City: Editorials (we called them idiotorials) were written by trained seals whose only qualifications were that they be in favor of motherhood and against the man-eating shark. So I wrote this editorial: We're all in favor of motherhood, I said, but what's with this fish? Why should we be against the man-eating shark? It's a very well-behaved fish, I said, given to no unseemly outcries, which doesn't attack unless attack-ted (I put that in). Leave us never forget, I said, that the man-eating shark is a fish that brings forth its young alive. It's been doing this for two million years, long before the human race had ever been heard of, they were mothers long before we were. Obviously the man-eating shark in a very real sense is motherhood. So that was the first one. I'd put those things into the secretary's basket and sneak down the stairs.

INTERVIEWER

What was Lippmann's opinion of your editorials?

CAIN

Well, he read them at least. He once asked me if I realized that forty percent of the allusions in my editorials were to Lewis Carroll and W.S. Gilbert. But Mencken! Did you know that he never even read Alice in Wonderland? Imagine: Henry Mencken never read the greatest novel in the English language.

INTERVIEWER

After the World you went to The New Yorker, didn't you? You were the managing editor there.

CAIN

I needed a good salary because I had been working for the World, doing editorials and features, as well as writing in the weekend magazine. Combined, I got $250, a nice wage in those days. With the New Yorker job, I got the same thing.

INTERVIEWER

What was your recollection of working with Harold Ross?

CAIN

If I started talking about it I would sound as if I were a guy who virtuously knew all the right answers and that Ross could not accept my superior wisdom. But I have to preface that by saying that it was a job that I was weirdly unqualified for temperamentally. I wasn't a flop at the job, but it meant nothing to me; I couldn't take any pride in it. I did well enough.

Ross had a streak that nobody who writes him up ever mentions. I don't think Thurber had any idea this streak in Ross existed that I had to battle morning, noon, and night. I'll tell you what the streak was. He had this reputation, you know, of getting out the most sophisticated magazine in the world, yet he'd talk like a Colorado hillbilly; he'd say to me, “We gotta get this place organized.” I didn't quite know what he meant, but after being there a couple of weeks, I began to detect this uneasy improvisation . . . things getting lost, nobody quite knowing how to go about things, and I began to get what he was talking about. My first realization came from my own experience. I'd inherited a girl from Ogden Nash, a secretary, and I discovered I was spending my days not doing my work but telling her how to do hers. Finally, after making an inquiry about it, and finding out she came from a family comfortably situated here in New York and wouldn't starve if she got let out, I let her out and told Ross, I'm getting a new girl. The trouble with this girl is that she's no good because you don't pay her enough, only about twenty-two dollars a week; you can't get a good girl for twenty-two dollars; I'm going to pay thirty-five dollars. In the depths of the Depression, thirty-five dollars a week was quite nice pay for a secretary; he gulped and looked rather strange. Ross had this idea about “talent,” meaning only writers and artists. He was wonderful up there in “21,” his table was a hub; they just doted on him; sitting down with him for five minutes, he was the big gun; you can't imagine his magnetism, the inspiration he was to these people. But he regarded secretaries and “non-talent” functionaries around the magazine, accountants and things like that, as practically thieves, probably with their hands in the till. He begrudged them every dime they made. One time he said to me, “Plugs, Cain, plugs. I can't get a writer except by watching everywhere and grabbing him off. But I can get a line around the block of these secretaries just by putting an ad in the paper. They're all plugs.” Human ciphers, he meant. I said, Look, to me they're all human beings and there's no such thing as a plug. But for the sake of argument, let's call them plugs. They're good plugs and bad plugs. And there are plugs competent to do their work and those that aren't. By getting competent secretaries and paying them enough that they do their work, you'll save money; you won't need as many editors. That wasn't the only battle I had with him. He was inclined to make his decisions without consulting me. I didn't ask for approval, but if something was going across my desk I had to know. He made deals I didn't even know about. The thing that finally brought me up tight was the case of John O'Hara. O'Hara wanted an advance from the magazine; Ross promised it to him. When I heard about it, I made an issue of it. I said, Goddam it, you cannot do things like that without my knowing. Then Ross withdrew the advance from O'Hara, or said he did. And I then thought, Why in hell do I make an issue of these things? Here's a man, O'Hara, you have every admiration for, who's personally fairly cold, but who is a very gifted writer. He ought to be in this magazine. And yet you're making an issue of the thing. What the hell are you doing this goddam job for anyway? It happened that my agent had been making noises about getting me a Hollywood offer; I had lunch with him the day this O'Hara business came up, and I said, Okay, you've been talking a Hollywood offer. If you can get it, I'm receptive. I guess I'm ready to go out there. He had the offer by three o'clock that afternoon. So that's how I quit The New Yorker.

INTERVIEWER

What was Ross like personally?

CAIN

After 6 o'clock Ross was a nice guy. He had a gummy, tooth grin, like Caruso. And he listened to other men's jokes. But I didn't like it. New York is not even a city, it's a congerie of rotten villages. Besides, I had come from a newspaper where the ideal was information. The New Yorker's ideal was entertainment. I earned my money, but I had no pride or satisfaction.

INTERVIEWER

So you had no regrets at leaving?

CAIN

One personal reason for being pleased at being in California was that I couldn't seem to write about New York. Those funny New York taxi drivers weren't funny to me. I couldn't manage the New York idiom. If you can't write like New York, you have no business living in New York and making New York the locale of your stories. There would be a falsity to it. When I got out to California, I found the people there spoke my lingo. They use a little better grammar in California than they do in Maryland, but what was even better for me was the roughneck who uses fairly good grammar. I found by putting the story in his mouth it wasn't so knobby and gnarled for the reader. It would kind of go along . . . easy reading. So, suddenly, out there in California I began writing in the local idiom. Everything broke for me.

INTERVIEWER

You were nearly in your forties then. Wasn't this quite late to think of becoming a novelist?

CAIN

A lot of novelists start late—Conrad, Pirandello, even Mark Twain. When you're young, chess is all right, and music and poetry. But novel-writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can't be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative writing courses! The academics don't know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any memory of the origins of The Postman Always Rings Twice?

CAIN

Oh yes, I can remember the beginning of The Postman. It was based on the Snyder-Gray case, which was in the papers about then. You ever hear of it? Well, Grey and this woman Snyder killed her husband for the insurance money. Walter Lippmann went to that trial one day and she brushed by him, what was her name? Lee Snyder.* Walter said it seemed very odd to be inhaling the perfume or being brushed by the dress of a woman he knew was going to be electrocuted. So the Snyder-Grey case provided the basis. The big influence in how I wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice was this strange guy, Vincent Lawrence, who had more effect on my writing than anyone else. He had a device which he thought was so important—the “love rack” he called it. I have never yet, as I sit here, figured out how this goddamn rack was spelled . . . whether it was wrack, or rack, or what dictionary connection could be found between the word and his concept. What he meant by the “love rack” was the poetic situation whereby the audience felt the love between the characters. He called this the “one, the two and the three.” Someone, I think it was Phil Goodman, the producer and another great influence, once reminded him that this one, two, and three was nothing more than Aristotle's beginning, middle, and end. “Okay, Goody,” Lawrence said, “who the hell was Aristotle, and who did he lick?” I always thought that was the perfect Philistinism.

INTERVIEWER

How did it work?

CAIN

Lawrence would explain what he meant with an illustration, say a picture like Susan Lenox, where Garbo was an ill-abused Swedish farm girl who jumped into a wagon and brought the whip down over the horses and went galloping away and ended up in front of this farmhouse which Clark Gable, who was an engineer, had rented. And he takes her in. He's very honorable with her, doesn't do anything, gives her a place to sleep, puts her horses away and feeds them . . . He didn't have any horses himself, but he did have two dozen ears of corn to feed hers. Well, the next day he takes the day off and the two of them go fishing. He's still very honorable, and she's very self-conscious and standoffish. She reels in a fish (they used a live fish—must have had it in a bucket). She says, I'll cook him for your supper. And with that she gave herself away; his arms went around her. This fish, this live fish, was what Lawrence meant by a “love rack”; the audience suddenly felt what the characters felt. Before Lawrence got to Hollywood, they had simpler effects, created by what was called the mixmaster system. You know, he'd look at her through the forest window, looking over the lilies, and this was thought to be the way to do it; then they'd go down to the amusement park together and go through the what do you call it? Shoot de chute?

INTERVIEWER

Tunnel of love.

CAIN

The tunnel of love, and all the rest of it. It was what was called the montage, and at the end of the montage they were supposed to be in love. Lawrence just wouldn't have this. He said this love rack had to be honest, it had to be real poetry. He revolutionized picture-writing in Hollywood; he hadn't been out there long before they all accepted his goddamn love rack.

The other important influence at this time was Bob Riskin, who had been detailed by Harry Cohn, the President of Columbia, to talk to me and find out whether I ticked. Riskin, whose wife was Fay Wray—the girl who did the screech in the original King Kong—was the ace writer at Columbia; he did all the Frank Capra pictures, like It Happened One Night. A tremendously successful guy. He said to me, You have the strangest mind. The problem is, the algebra must be right. He said, You seem to think that there's some way you can transform this equation, and transform it, and transform it, until you arrive at the perfect plot. It's not like that. The algebra has to be right, but it has to be your story. I made algebra of it all right, but it was my story, too, especially with the lingo in the mouth of a hobo with good grammar, like they have in California.

INTERVIEWER

   The Postman Always Rings Twice wasn't actually your first attempt at writing a novel, was it?

CAIN

   No. In 1922 when I was still on The Baltimore Sun, I took the winter off to go down and work in the mines. I tried to write the Great American Novel, and wrote three of them, none of them any good. I had to come slinking back to work admitting that the Great American Novel hadn't been written. Actually, the strange thing is that novels aren't written by young guys. I was saying that before. You have to wait for your mind to catch up with whatever it is it's working on; then you can write a novel. I knew Sinclair Lewis fairly well. Until he was in his late thirties he was just a “fictioneer” for the Saturday Evening Post. He wrote things like “Turn to the Right,” and Free Air, mostly just dedicated to the Automobile Age. At that time he was always riding around in a car, having his picture taken at the wheel with that wife he had, I forget her name. But then when he was thirty-eight years old he got the idea for Main Street, and after that it was a new kettle of fish and a new writer. I learned from him, and also from the most prolific novelist I think this country ever had. Does the name William Gilbert Patten mean anything to you? His pen name was Burt L. Standish. Certainly you've heard of Frank Merriwell, “Dime Store” Merriwell.

The books about Merriwell came out on top of each other. Anyway, I wrote Standish up for the Saturday Evening Post. I've got to make a confession to you—I couldn't, as a boy, read a Frank Merriwell story. When I wrote him up, I tried and tried to read a Frank Merriwell, and I'll be goddamned if I've ever read one through yet. They were so utterly naïve, and so horribly written. But I learned from Standish, learned from his mistakes. And I admired the discipline that turned out all those books. You know, in all Frank Merriwell's perfection, he had a fault. Once when I was talking about how perfect Frank Merriwell was, Sinclair Lewis corrected me. “No, no, Jim,” he said, “Frank had a weakness—he gambled, had to deal with it all the time.” Just then Phil Goodman asked Lewis, “Red, how much would Babbitt have made this year?”

“Oh, I don't know,” said Lewis in his falsetto, “I think this year about ten thousand a year.”

“Oh, much more than that.”

“No,” says Lewis, “don't forget that George (Babbitt) had a failing. He couldn't keep his mouth shut, so he never got taken in on anything big.”

Well, there are two writers who fall into the category of what Mark Twain called a “trained novelist.” Each apparently developed his own characters on the basis of a weakness. I have no consciousness of ever developing a character that way, of developing any character any particular way. Perhaps it's something I should be concerned about, but I'm not.

INTERVIEWER

So do you work from a story or a situation?

CAIN

I don't think I can answer that. I doubt if any writer could answer that. I don't know what I work from.

INTERVIEWER

But there are devices one can use to set up a story, aren't there? Such as the love rack, or the algebraic analysis of a story.

CAIN

Devices, yes. Like the old switcheroo. I used quite a few in my book called Past All Dishonor. It's about Virginia City in the Civil War days of the big whorehouses. It's about a boy who fell for a girl who worked in a house. Every guy in town could have her for ten bucks except him, and the reason was that she half-loved him. This was a very nice situation, and I was able to do something with it. I was able to top it, and that's always what you try to do when you have a situation: You pull it, you switch it, you top it, which is the old Hollywood formula for a running gag. In Past All Dishonor I had this guy kill the rich man she was going to marry: That was what all the Virginia City whores could look forward to, some rich miner that would marry them in spite of their “dishonor” (that's why San Francisco genealogy is such an unpopular subject). So he shot the guy she was going to marry. Here's where I switched it: he then had to enlist quickly in the Union Army, though he himself was a Confederate. He did it to save his own life because he knew this guy's friends would plug him, and also the woman that owned the whore house where the girl worked was going to plug him, too, because this rich guy was going to buy the whorehouse so she could retire. So, he enlisted in the Union Army to save his own goddamn life.

Well, she's outside, waiting outside the barracks. He goes out there expecting the gun, she's going to get him; he knows he's going to have to face the music. And this is where I switched it again: She says, “You killed him for me.” She's an ambitious girl, but to her the most exciting thing in her life is that he would kill a man for her. For the first time in her life, she's in love. So he deserts the Union Army, and they go traipsing off into the mountains. They plan this robbery very carefully. They rob the safe on a train, which he cracks open and it just spews out jewels and money. They take all this off on their two horses and a mule, leading them up over the snow. They're heading to Nevada, to escape into Mexico. He's got the girl and more money than either of them ever dreamed of, and jewels and everything. Up there in the hills they hear dogs barking. They can't be sure they're not being followed, so he goes out and camps by a rock to look, with his gun. It's been established in the book how he became an expert gunman, and how he learned to wheel and shoot, all in one motion, to do it quick. I think I quoted the saying that a gun is like breath to a drowning man—it has to be drawn in haste. He pretty well decides that the dogs are after a deer, not after him. And then he hears a twig crack behind him, and he wheels and shoots.

INTERVIEWER

And it's the woman.

CAIN

And all that stuff, every jewel was there, she has on her. Quite a switcheroo. I said to my little wife, Florence, It just had to be in the snow, where she could just sink down . . . and Florence said, Because you had cleansed her with that bullet; the snow was symbolic, she said, it was perfect. Well, now I've gone and admired my own book.

INTERVIEWER

What about your novel, The Butterfly?

CAIN

That was never made into a film either, and it would be even better for the screen than Past All Dishonor, especially these days. That one was about a guy who fell for his own daughter and began laying her. He falls for her so hard! You see, I had this material left over from when I was going to write that first novel about the coal fields down in West Virginia. The one I told you about. I'm a member of the United Mine Workers. I worked in the coal mines. By the way, it was Thornton Wilder who got involved in that book and suggested I work on it again.

INTERVIEWER

What was the origin of Double Indemnity?

CAIN

I wrote that under terrible pressure. I had been east to deal with an alimony contract problem I had. I had made a lot of money suddenly; I wanted to buy out from under it. But it took every dime I had. When I got back to Hollywood I needed money but quick. I can remember how the idea started. One day at the lunch table of the New York World Arthur Krock was talking about an early experience in his career, something that happened on the Louisville Courier-Journal. One night the copyboy came up with the news that the Journal was selling for a dollar apiece down in the street. The bulldog edition. Why? There was a lingerie ad in there. The copy said, If These Sizes are Too Big, Take a Tuck in Them. That's not what came out in the paper. Arthur said, “You spend your whole life guarding against this sort of thing.” Well, three weeks later the same thing happens on Arthur's paper. He's hopping! You guard and guard and then this happens. Well he found out that a printer did it on purpose; he hauled the printer in and said, “I know you did it but you won't get out of here unless you fess up about it, because I don't want anybody on this paper to think he can get away with something like this.” So the guy said, “You're right, I did it, I did it.” Okay. When Arthur told me the story I thought about certain traits in human nature. Then out in Hollywood I was trying to think of an idea for a story quick and it flits through my mind: Suppose instead of a publisher this had been an insurance agent whose job it was to guard against that one guy who would gyp the company out of money by getting a policy on a barn he intended to burn down and suppose he collaborated with him rather than guarding against him. Wondering about that was how the story came about.

INTERVIEWER

Was Double Indemnity sold to the movies right away?

CAIN

It was published as one of a trilogy of shorter novels, Three of a Kind they called it. Two of the stories had already been sold to the pictures by Swanson, my agent, but Double Indemnity had not been. So Swanson got some page proofs stitched up and distributed them around. Billy Wilder couldn't find his secretary one day. Around four o'clock in the afternoon he came out of his office to look for her, and she still wasn't there, so he asked the relief girl, “Well, where is she? Every time I come out here she isn't here.”

“Well I don't know Mr. Wilder, but I think she's still in the ladies room reading that book.”

“What book?”

“Some story Mr. Swanson left here,” she said.

At which moment the girl came in with the story pressed against her bosom. Wilder took it home to see why the girl couldn't put it down. Next day he wanted to do it as a picture.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever go and see the film? What did you think of it?

CAIN

I don't go. There are some foods some people just don't like. I just don't like movies. People tell me, don't you care what they've done to your book? I tell them, they haven't done anything to my book. It's right there on the shelf. They paid me and that's the end of it.

INTERVIEWER

Which of your own books would you say stand up best?

CAIN

The book that stands up for me is the one that sold the most copies; that's the only test for me and that one was The Postman Always Rings Twice. It didn't sell as many in the first edition as The Butterfly did. But there's the silver kangaroo over there on the shelf that Pocket Books gave me when The Postman passed the million-copy mark. That must have been thirty years ago. The thing still goes on, and how many editions, how many copies it’s sold, I haven't the faintest idea. Certainly it's done the best in English, but it's been translated into eighteen languages.

INTERVIEWER

How did you react to Albert Camus's praise of your writing?

CAIN

He wrote something about me—more or less admitting that he had patterned one of his books on mine, and that he revered me as a great American writer. But I never read Camus. In some ways I'm ignorant. In other ways I'm not. At fiction I'm not. But I read very little of it. I'm afraid to because I might like some guy's book too well! Another thing: When you write fiction, the other guy's book just tortures you—you're always rewriting it for him. You don't read it just as a reader; you read it as a guy in the business. Better not read it at all. I've read a great deal of American history.

INTERVIEWER

Have you read the two writers who have so often been identified with you—Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler?

CAIN

I read a few pages of Dashiell Hammett, that's all. And Chandler. Well, I tried. That book about a bald, old man with two nympho daughters. That's all right. I kept reading. Then it turned out the old man raises orchids. That's too good. When it's too good, you do it over again. Too good is too easy. If it's too easy you have to worry. If you're not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn't going to, either. I always know that when I get a good night's sleep, the next day I'm not going to get any work done. Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It's not all inspirational.

INTERVIEWER

Like Camus and a few other writers you treat crime from the point of the people to whom it has personal implications . . . rather than from the point of view of the detective. What is your own view of violence?

CAIN

Oh, yes. This girl came to interview me the other day. She must have spent the whole trip thinking up the question: How do I see myself as part of the Literature of Violence? I take no interest in violence. There's more violence in Macbeth and Hamlet than in my books. I don't write whodunits. You can't end a story with the cops getting the killer. I don't think the law is a very interesting nemesis. I write love stories. The dynamics of a love story are almost abstract. The better your abstraction, the more it comes to life when you do it—the excitement of the idea lurking there. Algebra. Suspense comes from making sure your algebra is right. Time is the only critic. If your algebra is right, if the progression is logical, but still surprising, it keeps.

INTERVIEWER

How related is style to your objectives? You are so well-known for your “hard-boiled” manner of writing . . .

CAIN

Let's talk about this so-called style. I don't know what they're talking about—“tough,” “hard-boiled.” I tried to write as people talk. That was one of the first arguments I ever had with my father—my father was all hell for people talking as they should talk. I, the incipient novelist, even as a boy, was fascinated by the way people do talk. The first man I ever sat at the feet of who enchanted me not only by what he told me but by how he talked, was Ike Newton, who put in the brick walk over at Washington College, right after my father became President. My father decided we needed a new brick walk down the side of the campus instead of the boardwalk they had. Every year when they burned off the grass in the spring, the boardwalk would kind of catch fire and there'd be charred ends of the boards. Well, this bothered my father. If he'd known more about American history, that kind of American history (he knew plenty about American history but not that kind), he'd have known that boardwalks had figured very prominently in our history, like in Virginia City: The boardwalk there was an institution. But he had Ike Newton put in a brick walk and I would sit out there while he worked, listening to him. He was a stocky man, rather nicely put together. He had a hammer with a screwdriver in the end of it that he'd tap the bricks with. Well, Ike Newton put the bricks in, gauging them with his eye, and doing a beautiful thing, and as he worked he talked. The way he'd use language! I'd go home and talk about it, to my mother's utter horror, and to my father's horror, too, because he was such a shot on the way people should talk. My childhood was nothing but one long lesson: not “preventative” but “preventive”; not “sort of a” but “a sort of”; not “those kind,” but “that kind” or “those kinds.” Jesus Christ, on and on and on.

INTERVIEWER

Since language is obviously such an important part of your own writing, do you feel the motion pictures were able to transplant and communicate the Cain story and style?

CAIN

When they were making Double Indemnity in Hollywood, Billy Wilder complained that Raymond Chandler was throwing away my nice, terse dialogue; he got some student actors in from the Paramount school, coached them up, to let Chandler hear what it would be like if he would only put exactly what was in the book in his screenplay. To Wilder's utter astonishment, it sounded like holy hell. Chandler explained to Wilder what the trouble was—that Cain's dialogue is written to the eye. That ragged right-hand margin that is so exciting and wonderful to look at can't be recited by actors. Chandler said, Now that we've got that out of the way, let's dialogue it with the same spirit Cain has in the book but not the identical words. Wilder still didn't believe him. They got me over there, purportedly to discuss something else, but the real reason was that Wilder hoped I would contradict Chandler, and somehow explain what had evaporated when the kids tried to do my lines. But, of course, I bore Chandler out, reminding Wilder I could write spoken stuff well enough, but on the page there just wasn't any room for talky climaxes. Chandler, who was an older man, was a bit irked by Wilder's omniscience, and he was pleased I backed him up.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever hear praise about your books, or the movies made from them, that you felt appreciated their intention?

CAIN

Carey Wilson, the producer of Postman, big shot on the Metro lot, liked my work. Why he liked me I never found out. But he once said, What I like about your books—they're about dumb people that I know and that I bump into in the parking lot. I can believe them and you put them into interesting situations. After all, how the hell could I care about a hobo and a waitress out there in that place you put them in your first book. For Chrissakes, I couldn't put the goddamn thing down for two hours!

 

* Her name was actually Ruth Snyder.