Richard Condon | Interview by John F. Baker

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Condon.
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Interview by John F. Baker

SOURCE: "Richard Condon," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 223, No. 25, June 24, 1983, pp. 66-7.

In the following interview, Baker presents Condon's comments on his writing career, including highlights from his personal life.

Richard Condon, who has been writing novels for 26 years—and living in various overseas parts of the world for much of that time—was astonished recently to find the American Booksellers Association convention right on his doorstep, where he now lives in Dallas. "I don't get out of the house much," he said with his rather inscrutable smile. "But I couldn't resist just taking a look, and it was terrifying: all those people, all those books, all those computers!"

Since Condon is known as one of the first name authors ever to go the word processor route—he has been using one for at least seven years now, which makes him practically one of the Wright Brothers—his alarm at the electronicization of books seems excessive. But he specializes in keeping his hearers, like his readers, slightly off balance. The scene of the meeting with PW is The Mansion, Dallas's most exclusive restaurant, and he describes with conspiratorial glee how the city's wealthy elite breakfast there often. "At 6.30 A.M. the driveway will be full of Cadillacs and Mercedes, and an hour later, long before you or I get to breakfast, they'll all be gone!" The unexpected has always been his trademark, and after a series of contemporary and sometimes even futuristic thrillers, he has now come up with a book completely out of left field: a papal historical novel called A Trembling Upon Rome, which is coming out in a few weeks from Putnam.

The idea has haunted Condon, he says, ever since 1967, when he first became interested in the fact that for a time, during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, there were three different popes sitting simultaneously in the Roman Catholic world—in Rome, in Avignon, in Pisa and, finally, Constanz. "The Catholic Church has always been powerful, but when you're talking about it in that period, you're talking law, you're talking international finance and, above all, government. The popes then were stronger than kings." The picture Condon draws is one of ruthlessness, cruelty, greed and opportunism, with questions of faith far at the back of the minds of all his scheming popes, cardinals and bishops.

He acknowledges that there is a lot of historical background to grasp before his plot becomes clear and that "perhaps it's a hard book to get into. But," he adds mischievously, "I guess I'm relying on a number of professional Catholics who will read it in outrage. Perhaps the 'Phil Donahue Show'…."

Does he see the book's picture of a corrupt and worldly Church as relevant to today? "Well, no religion can exist without money, and the Vatican still has its banking problems, doesn't it? I wanted to show that things were much the same in the 15th century." One of the things Condon discovered in his research was that one of the most venal of the Schism Popes was John XXIII; when the Church bestowed that name and number on one of the most beloved of recent popes, he saw it as a deliberate attempt to obliterate the memory of the previous John XXIII.

Where do all Condon's often offbeat ideas come from? Ranging as his novels do from right-wing political plotters (The Manchurian Candidate, still probably his best-known book) through a presidential assassination (Winter Kills) to Mafia machinations (Prizzi's Honor) and a dark feminist future (Whisper of the Axe), and now to Church history, he probably covers a wider range of subjects in his fictions than any popular novelist. "Well," he says, "if you spend eight hours a day thinking about something obsessively, you're bound to be ahead of anyone else. Then once you're ahead, in terms of what you know about the subject, you add a dash of melodrama, and there you are."

He has an entertaining presentation of his life which he has now polished, through interviews and self-sketches, to perfection: a faintly bemused man who has simply stumbled from one thing into another without any very clear sense of direction. He grew up in New York, went to sea on a cruise liner as a waiter, later became a movie publicist (most notably for Walt Disney at the height of the Disney success in the late '30s and early '40s). "From the time I joined Disney in 1936 to the time I finally left the film industry in 1957, I worked for all the major companies except Warner and Metro." The occupational disease of that profession, duodenal ulcers, finally caught up with him, and, "since the only other thing I knew how to do was spell, I decided to write novels."

There have now been 20 of these, beginning in 1958 with The Oldest Confession. As for publishers, after a few books in the first years of his writing career with McGraw-Hill and Random House, he settled in with Joyce Engelson at Dial and stayed for 14 years, following her to Richard Marek when that imprint went to Putnam and staying on there, contractually, after Marek and Engelson left for St. Martin's.

Apart from his fiction, he writes extensively on food (he now has, he says, seven pieces in the backlog at Gourmet magazine and remembers fondly as the best title ever put on a piece of his, an article about cooking spaghetti called "Remembrance of Things Pasta," which appeared in Venture magazine in the '60s). His only book in this vein, The Mexican Stove, he wrote with his daughter Wendy Bennett; it was originally published by Doubleday and, he says, is about to be reissued next year.

He is, as always, working on his next book. It will be called The Averted Eye and will, he says, be about a womanizing TV anchorman who becomes involved in national politics and soap opera ("How else would you get to be president today?" the novelist asks, not entirely rhetorically).

One of Condon's favorite jokes is to put people he knows, by name, into his books as minor characters, in much the way Alfred Hitchcock always inserted shorts of himself into his movies. This has happened so far to no fewer than 130 of Condon's friends and acquaintances, and he calls them the International Confederation of Book Actors. The longest-lived of them, a friend called Franklin Keller, he calls his "hiring chief," and he has appeared in most Condon books. Putnam's vice-president for public relations, Harriet Blacker, is, he says, one of the latest additions to the roster. "She'll be a tough Wall Street lawyer," he grins, to Blacker's rather dubious delight.

Since many moviegoers first became familiar with Condon's name through the brilliant movie made of The Manchurian Candidate, and he has been around movies for so much of his adult life, it's only natural to talk about films of his books. There have been four so far, "and a lot of expensive options," but the movie version of Winter Kills released in 1979 makes by far the oddest story (and one that Condon himself tells, at fascinating length, in the May issue of Harper's).

To recap his tale very briefly, the producers who originally put up the money are now, respectively, dead (murdered) and behind bars for cocaine smuggling. The movie was finished, after horrendous difficulties, only because many of the all-star cast and crew agreed to forfeit their salaries. It opened to audience and critical enthusiasm and was then abruptly withdrawn (it was never shown in many overseas markets at all); recently it resurfaced briefly to equal enthusiasm and disappeared again. It seems to be currently in limbo—and is meanwhile on the way to becoming a sort of cult classic. Condon hints darkly that his theme, that a presidential assassination is in the interests of many of the world's most powerful people, may be behind the movie's strangely checkered career to date.

But withal he is cheerful. "In the course of writing seven hours a day seven days a week, I have piled up four- or five-million words and have made about $2 1/2-million. That sounds like a lot, but it's only about what someone in middle management would have made over the same period in salary. The difference—and it's an important one—is that I've lived wherever I wanted to, and I didn't have to drive to the office every day."

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This section contains 1,396 words
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Buy the Interview by John F. Baker
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