I’m pleased to welcome guest writer Jeff Gelb to the site for this interview with author Robert Randisi.
ROBERT RANDISI REFLECTS ON HIS NICK CARTER NOVELS
By Jeff Gelb
I was very fortunate to be a child of the 1960s. I grew up in the era when the Beatles changed the face of music forever, when the Marvel Universe of comic books was born (I still recall where I bought Fantastic Four #1 off the stands at a nondescript drugstore in Rochester, NY!). And in particular, it was the era when James Bond exploded onto the worldwide stage and created a huge (and ongoing) appetite for spy fiction.
The phenomenal success of the Bond books (and movies) birthed scores of other spy series in the mid-1960s through the end of that decade. Some, like Matt Helm or Sam Durell, came out pretty much simultaneously to the Bond explosion. Others were obvious Bond wanna-bes. Most did not last more than five or six years.
And then there was Nick Carter. The brainchild of book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, Carter was a complete reboot of an all-but-forgotten early 20th Century pulp detective hero. This time, Carter (subtitled N3 or Killmaster), was an American secret agent whose 261 adventures lasted from 1964 through 1990. They were written by dozens of authors, many of whom have long since faded into obscurity. Some went on to greater acclaim, including Michael Avallone, David Hagberg, Gayle Lynds, Dennis Lynds, Martin Cruz Smith, and Robert Randisi.
Randisi is a prolific writer who has authored close to 700 books in multiple genres in his ongoing career. He cut his writing teeth on the Nick Carter books. Randisi has kindly agreed to be interviewed about that era of his writing career for Spywrite.com.
Spy Write: When did you first decide to become a writer?
Robert Randisi: I was 15 years old when I made the decision to be a full time writer by the time I turned 30—which I accomplished.
SW: Who were the writers who influenced and informed your decision and your style?
RR: I’ll give most of the credit to Ross Macdonald and Ian Fleming, both of whom, I started reading in my teens. A tip of the hat to many of the paperback writers of the 60s, from Donald Hamilton and Edward S. Aarons, to Carter Brown and Richard S. Prather. Also my gratitude goes out to writers who eventually became contemporaries and friends, Bill Pronzini and Dennis Lynds (his Dan Fortune books were written as “Michael Collins”).
SW: How and when did you get involved in the Nick Carter books? Did you come to them as a fan or just as a paid gig?
RR: I had read many of the Carter books when they were published by Award. I was aware of them when Charter started publishing them, but wasn’t reading them. After I sold my first mystery and first western to Charter, I became aware that they were Carter as work-for-hire. The idea of writing Nick appealed to me, and I figured it would also be a good training ground for me. So I “auditioned” and got to write six of them from 1981 to 1983.
RR: Were you a spy fiction fan?
RR: Yes, I had already read all of Ian Fleming, as well as much of Edward S. Aarons, Donald Hamilton, some Len Deighton and Peter O’Donnell (Modesty Blaise), Philip Atlee, James Dark and, one of my favorite series, the Don Smith Secret Mission books.
SW: Did you read any Carter books to bone up on the character? If so, which ones?
RR: I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else’s style when I wrote Carters. I talked with the editor, learned what I could about the character and his weapons, and went from there. After I wrote and delivered the first one, PLEASURE ISLAND, I had another chat with the editor (who, at that time, was a gorgeous brunette named Nicci) and she told me I hadn’t quite hit the mark with the book. After the second, THE CHESSMASTER, she said I had it.
SW: Did you know any other Carter authors? If so, did they offer any advice?
RR: I knew Dennis Lynds had written some, and a few other of my contemporaries at the time, but I didn’t ask anyone for any advice. I went my own way, which was to make Nick a pretty hardboiled character.
SW: Was there a Nick Carter “bible” you followed? For instance, were you told how much sex to include? What sorts of storylines and villains they preferred? Preferred word count?
RR: The publisher gave authors a pretty free hand when it came to plots and villains. They did prefer a certain page count, which pretty much kept the books from 200 to 240 pages. The sex was not graphic. And, of course, Nick had to have the same weapons in each book. But that was about it.
SW: Who was the editor who worked with you on these? What was he or she like? How “hands on” was he or she?
RR: The editor was a young woman named Nicci Risucci who, when she wasn’t editing, was singing in some NY clubs. She was beautiful, interesting and, for the most part, hands-off. My books were never heavily edited.
SW: Did you come up with the story ideas or did they?
RR: The story lines were up to the individual authors.
SW: How long did you have to write each book? Were these quick and easy writes for you?
RR: These probably took me two weeks. I did them in between Gunsmith books, but sometimes I did a Carter and a Gunsmith in one month.
SW: How much were you paid per book? Was there a royalty arrangement?
RR: The books were work-for hire, which meant a flat fee—probably $2500—and no royalty.
SW: How many Carter books did you write? Can you briefly summarize each? And why did you stop? What was your personal favorite Carter book that you wrote?
RR: I did six Carters. In PLEASURE ISLAND Nick is recovering from wounds, but isn’t given time to do so; In THE CHESSMASTER I believe he went undercover as a chess player; In THE MENDOZA MANUSCRIPT Nick has to recover the manuscript of a retired top agent; in THE GREEK SUMMIT Nick is a bodyguard; in THE DECOY HIT Nick has to locate an assassin who is killing agents; and in CARIBBEAN COUP Nick does battle with the most deadly Soviet agent. To be very truthful, I don’t have a favorite of the six.
I stopped doing them BECAUSE they were work for hire, and I eventually had four other series of my own, which were advance-and-royalty based.
SW: Did you have any cover art input?
RR: Ha! No cover input, whatsoever.
SW: What did you learn from your experience as a Carter writer?
RR: I learned discipline, getting my butt in the seat every day. I learned how to write third person. When I did P.I. stuff it was first person, and the first 13 Gunsmith books were first person, but eventually switched to third. Nick Carters were a good training ground for many writers, like Martin Cruz Smith and David Hagberg, who went on to very successful careers.
I did Nick Carters for the training, and the money. I was determined to write for a living, and at the time they helped me accomplish that. I did, however, remember reading Nick Carter years before when Award published them, so writing them appealed to me for that reason, as well.
SW: Would you like to return to spy fiction in the future?
RR: I would like to, eventually, write my own spy series, but right now I’m already doing about 17 books a year in the mystery and western genres.
SW: Thanks so much, Robert!
JEFF GELB is a lifelong fan and collector of 1960s spy fiction. He bought all the Signet James Bond paperbacks in real time, as well as scores of other paperback original series that came out in the wake of the Bond craze-including Nick Carter.