4481416936_4f4bc8ff2dAt a local library sale, I recently picked up a copy of James M. Cain’s Three of a Kind, which collects his first three novels, Career In C Minor, The Embezzler, and Double Indemnity. It’s a nice little book club edition published in 1944 for which I paid $2, an insane bargain, if only for the three novels by one of the masters of noir. But Three of a Kind contains the extra added bonus of a Preface by the author, a wonderful essay on writing, James M. Cain-style:

These novels, though written fairly recently, really belong to the Depression, rather than the War, and make interesting foot-notes to an era. They also make, to anybody who finds me interesting, an interesting commentary on my own development as a novelist, and as I am probably the most mis-read, mis-reviewed, and misunderstood novelist now writing, this may be a good place to say a word about myself, my literary ideals, and my method of composition. I have had, since I began writing, the greatest difficulties with technique, or at any rate fictive technique. I first wanted to be a novelist in my early twenties, but didn’t try to be until I was nearly thirty. I went down in the West Virginia coal mines, got a job there, and came back to write a story in that setting, I having acquired, in connection with my newspaper work, quite a background about labor. I wrote three novels that winter, all so bad I dumped them in the wastebasket; the last one I wouldn’t have written at all if I hadn’t squirmed at the idea of facing my reporter friends with the news that my great American novel was a pipe dream. Yet face them I had to, and for ten years resigned myself to the conviction that I couldn’t write a novel. I tried plays with no success, and short stories with very little success, but with a curious discovery. What had made the novel so hopeless was that I didn’t seem to have the least idea where I was going with it, or even which paragraph should follow which. But my short stories, which were put into the mouth of some character, marched right along, for if I in the third person faltered and stumbled, my characters in the first person knew perfectly well what they had to say. Yet they were very homely characters, and spoke a gnarled and grotesque jargon that didn’t seem quite adapted to long-fiction; it seemed to me that after fifty pages of ain’ts, brungs, and fittens, the reader would want to throw the book at me. But then I moved to California and heard the Western roughneck: the boy who is just as elemental inside as his Eastern colleague, but who has been to high school, completes his sentences, and uses reasonably good grammar. Once my ear had put this on wax, so that I had it, I began to wonder if that wouldn’t be the medium I could use to write novels. This is the origin of the style that is usually associated with me, and that will be found, in a somewhat modified form, in this book. No writer would be telling the truth if he said he didn’t think about style, for his style is the very pattern and weave and dye of his work. Yet I confess I usually read comments on this style with some surprise, for I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the. things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort. In general my style is rural rather than urban; my ear seems to like fields better than streets. I am glad of this, for I think language loses a bit of its bounce the moment its heels touch concrete.

About the time I was having these meditations on style, I fell under the spell of a man named Vincent Lawrence. You probably associate him with the writing credits of a good many movies, and no doubt have seen his plays; but his influence in Hollywood goes considerably beyond the scripts he has written, admirable as some of them have been. He has laid down principles that are pretty generally incorporated into pictures by now, and for that reason, as well as personal idiosyncrasies that are to say the least of it odd, has become something of a legend. I first met him in New York, when a play of mine had died on the road, and the late Philip Goodman, who produced it, had asked him to read it to see if it could be salvaged for Broadway. It couldn’t, as it turned out, but I met this tall, gaunt itinerant of Alpine villages, whose banner bore a strange device indeed: Technique. Until then I had been somewhat suspicious of technique. Not that I didn’t take pains with what I wrote, but I felt that good writing was gestative rather than fabricative, and that technique for its own sake probably anagramed into formula, and perhaps into hoke. Also, I was for some time thoroughly suspicious of him. The charm, the strange viewpoint on life, were impossible to resist, but like most fanatics, he was incredibly ignorant, and I don’t usually associate ignorance with profundity. For example, he talked quite a lot about the One, the Two, and the Three, not seeming to know that these were nothing but the Aristotelean Beginning, Middle, and End. His assumption that he had invented them reminded me of a crackpot I ran into once, in Charles County, Md. He had promised the village of Waldorf a great surprise, one he had been working on for years; I happened to be there the day he came down to the store with it, riding it, as a matter of fact. It was what he called a pedocycle, a contraption with high wheels that worked something like a tricycle, but with ratchets instead of a bent-axle drive. It was of wood, all hand-whittled, and it did move at a tolerably lively clip, but he didn’t seem aware that even in Charles County they had bicycles by then.

Yet it was amusing, if nothing else, to hear Lawrence ask his friend William Harris, Jr., the theatrical producer, with an amiable grin : “Well, General, who the hell was Aristotle, and who did he lick?” He had fantastic names for his friends, and spoke a fantastic language of his own, with words in it I am not sure, well as I have come to know him, I really understand, at least in their relation to his cerebration. So when this wight got me by the lapel, and talked technique at me, I was a little hostile. Until then, my ideal of writing, as well as I can recall it, was that the story correspond with life, mirror it, give a picture whose main element was truth. Lawrence had no objection to this, but insisted that truth was not all. He said if truth were the main object of writing, I would have a hard time competing with a $3 camera. He said if truth were what a writer really worshipped, he would write, not a novel, but a case history. Then he recalled for me Dreiser’s play, The Hand of the Potter. He pointed out that this play was truthful enough, but utterly pointless, since it made a plea for a degenerate, without ever once attempting to get you interested in that degenerate.

Writing, narrative writing, whether in the theatre, a book, or a picture house, he said, must first make you care about the people whose fortunes you follow. Then he expounded to me the principle of the love-rack, as he calls it;-I haven’t the faintest idea whether this is a rack on which the lovers are tortured, or something with pegs to hold the shining cloak of romance, or how the word figures in it;–and as it is this which has had such an effect on Hollywood picture writing, I shall give in a little detail what he had to say about it: “O. K., Cain, it’s Romeo and Juliet, they’re out on the balcony, it’s the worst love scene in the world, but anyway it’s some kind of love scene, and what makes it? The balcony, lad, that piece of wood that’s shoved on just before the curtain goes up. If she ever knocks it over some night, and that guy can really climb up there, it’ll lay an egg so bad the Department of Health will move in. In this true story you think you want to write, they meet, they have lunch, they talk, they like each other, they fall in love. That’s how it does happen. But I don’t pay $5.50 for that. It may be love, but it’s not a play. I don’t feel anything, and making me feel it is what you’re. after. Look, I’m sitting at a window, looking down at the park. There’s two benches there, one with a couple on it holding hands. Well there’s no news in that is there? I guess they’re in love but they can go right down and get married and send me a card from Niagara Falls and I don’t care a bit. On the other bench is a girl reading a book. She’s got a little dog there, and every now and then she exercises him by throwing the ball out on the grass and making him bring it back. A guy comes along, takes a look at her, and passes by. But when he takes another look at her I know he likes her looks, and right away I wonder what’s going to happen. Now if she looks up from the book, and jumps up and runs over to him and kisses him, it’s still love, but I’m bored. But if she looks up, and he walks away quick, I know they’re strangers. I see him stop at a peanut vendor’s, and I wonder what he’s up to. He buys peanuts, comes back, sits on the bench, pays no attention to her. But the dog he pats on the head. He starts on the peanuts, but right away he peels one and pitches it up in the air for the dog. The dog catches it, pricks up his ears for another. Turns out the dog likes peanuts. Next thing, the girl is watching it and laughs. The guy raises his hat, moves over. They both play with the dog. He’s done it, Cain, he’s pulled something, he’s got me interested. I stay right there watching them. I ought to be writing a scene, but I want to see how this comes out. After a while, when he flags a cab and they all three drive off together, he, she, and the dog, they’re my favorite lovers that day. It’s the same way with anything you write. Before you can interest me in story, you got to interest me in them.”

All this, as I write it now, seems obvious enough, but it didn’t seem obvious then, either to me or the picture business. We both moved to Hollywood about that time, he to zoom to incredible wealth, I to hit the deck like a watermelon that has rolled off the stevedore’s truck, and to become, briefly, almost as squashy. For I, who had found the newspaper business quite suited to my talents, and had usually been the white-headed boy of editors, now found there was one kind of writing I was no good at: I couldn’t write pictures. Lawrence, bringing a gospel that made sense to a picture business reeling from the tangle of problems brought on by the talkies, was learning the difficult art of giving $20 tips without being sent to psychopathic. I, faced with a financial problem if I wanted to stay west, was thinking technique in grim earnest. I began talking to him, instead of listening to him talk to me. I wanted to know why the whole thing couldn’t be a love-rack. I wanted to know why, if the main situation was pregnant, if it was such as to create an emotional area in which a man and woman lived, there had to be such special attention to an isolated scene in which they fell in love. I wanted to know why every episode in the story couldn’t be invented and moulded and written with a view to its effect on the love story. Lawrence saw no particular objection, and then I somewhat hesitantly revealed what was in my mind. Murder, I said, had always been written from its least interesting angle, which was whether the police would catch the murderer. I was considering, I said, a story in which murder was the love-rack, as it must be to any man and woman who conspire to commit it. But, I said, they would commit the perfect murder. It wouldn’t go, of course, quite as they planned it. But in the end they would get away with it, and then what? They would find, I said, that the earth is not big enough for two persons who share such a dreadful secret, and eventually turn on each other. He was enthusiastic, and I wrote it as planned, with no love-rack in the Lawrence sense. He has always quarreled with me for the first scene between the lovers in that novel, insisting it is commonplace. A commonplace scene was just what I wanted. They were that kind of people, and I still proposed to be true to my ideal of truth, something theatrical people are inclined to be a little perfunctory about. But after this scene, as the dreadful venture became more and more inevitable, I strove for a rising coefficient of intensity, and even hoped that somewhere along the line I would graze passion. The whole thing corresponded to a definition of tragedy I found later in some of my father’s writings: that it was the “force of circumstances driving the protagonists to the commission of a dreadful act.” I didn’t, however, know of that definition at this time. Lawrence liked it, and even gave me a title for it. We were talking one day, about the time he had mailed a play, his first, to a producer. Then, he said, “I almost went nuts. I’d sit and watch for the post-man, and then I’d think, ‘You got to cut this out,’ and then when I left the window I’d be listening for his ring. How I’d know it was the postman was that he’d always ring twice.”

He went on with more of the harrowing tale, but I cut in on him suddenly. I said: “Vincent, I think you’ve given me a title for that book.”

“What’s that?”

“The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

“Say, he rang twice for Chambers, didn’t he?”

“That’s the idea.”

“And on that second ring, Chambers had to answer, didn’t he? Couldn’t hide out in the backyard any more.”

“His number was up, I’d say.”

“I like it.”

“Then that’s it.”

Although only one of them is about murder, these three novels embody this theory of story-building, for they all concern some high adventure on which a man and woman embark. In the case of Career in C Major it is a comic adventure, but to them important. I discover certain unexpected similarities between them. All three, for example, have as their leading male character a big, powerful man in his early thirties. This bothers me much less than you might think. I care almost nothing for what my characters look like, being almost exclusively concerned with their insides. Yet, when a number of people complained, after publication of my novel Serenade, that they had to read half the book before they found out what the singer looked like, I decided, in Mr. Harris’s language, to “wrap that up in a little package for them so they’ve got it and will stop worrying about it.” My choice of what a character looks like is completely phoney, and it may surprise you to learn that I haven’t the faintest idea what he looks like. The movie writer’s description of a character’s externals, “a Clark Gable type,” would do perfectly for me, and if you don’t like the appearance of any of the gentlemen in these pages, you are quite free to switch off to Clark Gable, or Warner Baxter, who played Borland in Career in C Major, or whoever you like. All three stories involve women whose figures are more vivid than their faces, but this doesn’t bother me either. In women’s appearance I take some interest, but I pay much more attention to their figures than I do to their faces-in real life, I mean. Their faces are masks, more or less consciously controlled. But their bodies, the way they walk, sit, hold their heads, gesticulate, and eat, betray them. But here again, on paper, I am more concerned with what goes on inside them than with what they look like. So if you want to put Loretta Young, who played Doris Borland, in her place or Brenda Marshall, who played Sheila Brent, in her place, it will not affect things in the slightest.

Reading these stories over, I get quite a surprise. I would have said, on the basis of how I felt after finishing them, that I liked Double Indemnity best, Career in C Major next, and The Embezzler least. Now my preference is quite the reverse. In the Embezzler I find writing that is much simpler, much freer from calculated effect, than I find in the other two. And for long stretches I find the story quite free of what Clifton Fadiman, writing about me, once called “the conscious muscle-flexing.” The muscle-flexing is often there, all right, and it is real, but it is not, as so many assume, born of a desire to be tough. I had acquired, I suspect as a result of my first fiasco at novel-writing, such a morbid fear of boring a reader that I certainly got the habit of needling a story at the least hint of a letdown. This bothered Edmund Wilson, too, in an article he wrote about me: he attributed these socko twists and surprises to a leaning toward Hollywood, which is not particularly the case. Recently, I have made steady progress at the art of letting a story secrete its own adrenalin, and I have probably written the last of my intense tales of the type that these represent. The trouble with that approach is that you have to have a “natural,” as it is called, before you can start, and a natural is not to be had every day. If what you start with is less, if you shoot at passion and miss by ever so little, you hit lust, which isn’t pretty, or even interesting. Again, the whole method, if the least touch of feebleness gets into it, lends itself to what is perilously close to an etude in eroticism. Again, love is not all of life, and I confess that lately, having got past the stymie of style that bothered me for so many years, I want to tell tales of a little wider implication than those which deal exclusively with one man’s relation to one woman. In the future, what was valid in the technical organization of my first few novels will be synthetized, I hope, into a somewhat larger technique. What was bad will continue to drop off the cart until in the end most of it will be bounced out.

J. M. C.
Aug. 24, 1942

© The estate of James M. Cain

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