Friendly Fire

November 12th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

You may have heard that I put my foot in it at Bouchercon last week, which is very much the case. I have apologized on Facebook and elsewhere, but I wanted to do that here as well, since this is where I interact with my readers, who are nice enough to care about what I’m up to.

I’ll get to the apology soon enough, but I want to provide some context. Doing so risks being accused of trying to justify what I said, but the unjustifiable cannot by definition be justified. I have been reminded that words matter, and as a wordsmith I believe I already know that, or should. But without context, words just float there, causing trouble.

At Bouchercon last week I presented the Best Novel “Shamus” award. This came at the end of a longer day than is advisable for somebody my age with my recent health history. Barb and I skipped Thursday, the first day of the convention, because it fell on Halloween and we wanted to give out the usual treats and have the fun of spending some time with our two grandkids. That had us getting up at 4 a.m on Friday. Barb was very ill, with a terrible cough; I’d had the same cold but was in the latter stages. At the con, she came out of the hotel room only for a few key events, including the Private Eye Writers of America banquet. She shook no hands.

I spent that first day in meetings with editors and publishers, and we were late for the banquet because one of my obligations (a pleasant one) was stopping by the Thomas & Mercer cocktail party. I’m pretty much a non-drinker, as some of you know, and did not imbibe. So much for that excuse. What remains is the stupid one: I should have grabbed a nap. Cue the eyeball rolls among the young.

Bob Randisi, my oldest friend in the writing game, and his lovely partner, Christine Matthews, do a bang-up job on the banquets. Christine works hard to find a good, interesting venue in each city the con travels to, working by phone mostly, and obviously can only rarely visit the venue ahead of time before booking it. The venue this year was in a charming part of Dallas, and was itself charming, the food excellent, the best PWA banquet ever some have said.

Here comes the however: the logistics of the dining room were dire. In a long narrow room, presenters – sans podium – were facing the short width of the room, specifically the rest rooms, with big groups of diners to the left and right. Without a sound system at the facility, Bob used an amplified microphone, which was just not up to the job, particularly with music coming in from the street directly outside.

Presenters, including Bob himself, quickly were pelted with yells of “Can’t hear you!” from either side of this divided country. As things wore on, the left half of the room got rowdier and rowdier, the right half ever more sedate. Speakers preceding the awards proper began abandoning the mic, and just talking loud – one made a joke of it and yelled his entire fifteen-minute presentation (that got very old). A stand-up comedy routine that went flat had been prepared with visual aids that would have been difficult to see even under better circumstances. A lovely speech written by the absent recipient of the Eye (PWA Grand Master, Les Roberts) proved too lengthy.

By the time I went on, last, some humor was needed, and brevity too, so I tried to provide some of both. How did that go? Mostly okay, actually. I spoke about how much the Shamus award meant to writers – in my case, it jump-started me as a private eye writer in 1984, with True Detective winning Best Novel, after I’d written about crooks and amateur sleuths for over a decade.

Bob had given me the nominee list (and winner) at the event itself, at the little table Barb and I and Christine shared. I’d only been asked the day before to give the Best Novel Award. Once in the past, I’d mangled the names on such a list given me last minute by Bob. Because the tables were filled by the time we arrived, going around trying to find five writers I’d never met wasn’t practical. I did my best, at one point giving Bob a bad time about putting me in this spot again, looking at the list with its several non-Anglo Saxon names, and saying, “Furriners!” in an arch and I thought obviously ironic way, meant to underscore my own ineptitude at pronouncing these names. I think it’s fair to say that people who know me much at all do not consider me a stupid bigot, or a smart one, either.

It got the modest laugh it maybe deserved, and I had no idea some of those attending were offended until an editor from Soho came up to Bob and me after the event, as we stood there chatting with people filing out. The editor stated that what I’d said had made some people uncomfortable; she said this not to me, but to Bob, though I was standing right there. That, frankly, rubbed me the wrong way. So did her adding that she herself had not been offended.

I told her to “Lighten up,” and Bob reminded her that Soho hadn’t yet paid for their banquet tickets. That was the extent of the conversation.

At the convention the next day, I attended Barb’s panel and my own – a PWA panel, as it happened – and did several signings and prowled the book room. No one mentioned what I’d said at (or after) the banquet, and even now I don’t know whether the blowback was brewing at the con or if that waited till social media got hold of it.

Monday morning, back in Iowa, I was writing when I got an e-mail from an editor saying I needed to issue an apology, brief and immediate, and hope that it put out the firestorm. I frankly did not know what he was talking about, but I tracked it down, and yes, what I’d said at the PWA banquet was a “thing” on Facebook.

I use Facebook sparingly and Twitter not at all. I had not reflected on what I’d said, as a presenter or to that Soho editor after. The first had been just a sarcastic throwaway, the latter a response not to her complaint so much as what struck me as the risible manner in which that complaint had been made. I made two back-to-back posts, one protesting the rush to judgment, particularly from people who weren’t in attendance (“furriners” had become “foreigners”), and another apologizing to the nominees.

Sometimes when you say something stupid, you don’t even realize it was stupid till later. Now, as I reflected, I came to feel I had diminished the honor of the nominees, not only presenting in a jokey manner an award I immensely value myself, but doing so with a tasteless throwaway – lampooning a view I consider so ridiculously stupid, I couldn’t imagine anyone taking it at face value.

So I apologized on Facebook, and apologized privately to several of the nominees. In the former case, I was accused of trying to explain away my screw-up; but in the latter case, I found the nominees with whom I was able to connect (including the winner) not only gracious, but helpful in making me understand how hurtful that one word had been. They also made a good case for the bravery of the editor who approached with her comment after the event.

My main concern, frankly, is those nominees. It makes me heartsick – actually, nauseated – to think that I took anything away from their honor. I have sat as a nominee in a PWA banquet myself, many times, and I know the pins-and-needles feelings that go through you, waiting for the winner’s name to be read. As literally the person who has lost more Shamus awards than anyone else on the planet, I assure you that anxiety never leaves.

So to them my apology is unconditional, and it extends to everyone in that room, including the SoHo editor, who was the only one with guts enough to make her complaint heard at the event itself. That apology extends to anyone who has offered criticism to me about this, or felt in any way offended. And I apologize to the PWA and its membership for putting them on the spot. To all but the mean-spirited among you, I apologize.

And I thank the editors who got in touch supportively, and to my fellow writers who defended me, some of whom got chastised almost as much as I did. I knew the smart thing to do would probably have been to make a short but complete apology and get out of Dodge. If you read these Updates, you know that’s not my way. Instead I engaged in the discussion at Erin Mitchell’s thread.

That was the extent of my engagement, however, except for adding a few comments at blogs where this came up, repeating (no cut and paste – always a fresh start) my apology. I got into discussions of various aspects of this debacle with posters at Erin’s site, and got a better understanding of seeing this through the eyes of others. For a long time, I did not feel that my behavior with the Soho editor was wrong, but it was, and I should have known that earlier. It took mettle to approach us, and I was flat-out rude to her. I am not known for rudeness, but I was rude.

Maybe a nap would have helped.

I disagree with certain of these reasonable posters on the topic of intent. Many insist intent doesn’t matter (I got compared to a rapist in this discussion, which was no fun). I would argue that mean-spirted intent does matter. Me lampooning ethnocentric attitudes, poorly, is not equal to a racist’s idiocy.

But they do make a good point – dying by friendly fire makes you just as dead as when the bad guys are doing the shooting.

11 Responses to “Friendly Fire”

  1. Thomas Zappe says:

    This is what a bona fide apology looks like, but don’t abandon your seat in the Senate just yet.

    P.S. Naps are good things. Trust me, dozens have.

  2. Sean Kelly says:

    I have been trying to make this exact point with my teenager. You may not mean to be unkind, but it can happen that way. I almost lost a job recently due to an off-hand remark meant to be positive, but taken the exact opposite way. But if a dinosaur like me can continue to learn to be better, so can we all. Bravo to you for standing up and choosing to be better.

    And the event planner side of me says that the organizer should provide pronunciation guides for names if they need it. (In Guam, my boss had to introduce Mayor Aquiningoc (Ah-Key-KNEE-Knock) and I made sure she knew the proper pronunciation. Planning pays off.)

  3. Paul.Griffith says:

    Max, we all mess up, we all make mistakes, we are imperfect people being watched by those waiting to catch us make a mistake and say, “Ah ha! Got ‘cha!” Those waiting to rub it in. Thankfully God knows our hearts, our intents and is not there to rub it in, but to rub it out. To erase it, to forgive our imperfections, our guilt, our shame, our sins. You took the high road and issued an appropriate apology, you merely misspoke with no intention to cause pain or put anyone down. Those that compared you to a rapist did so with intent. Their intent was to belittle you. Let it go, God knows your heart, your friends know you and understand you did what anyone of us can be guilty of, making a mistake. Life is too short to let regret steal your joy, Barb loves you Nathan and his family love you and many of your fans feel, if not love, affection for the person you are. There will always be someone lurking, waiting for Max Allan Collins to mess up so they can feel superior. I truly believe you simply misspoke, made a bad joke and it hurt some, but your sincere apology brought a healing balm to those affected, unfortunately there are those that aren’t looking for an apology they simply want blood. Don’t let a mere mistake define you, continue being the man you are and carry on.

  4. Craig Zablo says:

    Well said. The apology that is. We all have said things we’ve regretted. I have and probably will again. If so, I hope I respond with as much class and sincerity as you did.

  5. Thank you for these comments and the support. I won’t answer individual points you brought up because I think I’ve said my piece on this subject.

  6. karen h says:

    Wow. My husband just turned on the TV and Road to Perdition was on. He loves the movie; I’d never seen it (not a big Tom Hanks fan – I know I’m probably the only person in America to say that). I started Googling it and found this blog — and this is the first post I read. LOL Well, it was an interesting one. Not knowing the backstory beyond what’s here, it sure seems to me that we’re all particularly thin-skinned today, which is sad. I say that as a 55-year-old who grew up in a town where there was real racism and real fear. This kind of minor mishap gets blown out of proportion thanks to the plugged-in age we’re living in imo. Everything is a “MOMENT.” Of course, a sincere apology is good, etc. But let’s put some things in perspective. Sheesh. Anyway, the movie led me here, and now I’m going to buy the graphic novel and the books.

  7. Mike Doran says:

    I’ll just make my point as quickly (and, I hope, painlessly) as possible.

    The aspect of the current age that I dislike the most is the way that taking offense – at anything and everything – has become the new national pastime.

    ***Two psychiatrists pass each other in the hall.
    First Psych: “Good Morning!”
    Second Psych: “What the hell do you mean by that?

    Old joke, but you get the point – I hope.

    I was going to throw in a passing reference to Trumpzapoppin’! 2020 (Coming All Too Soon!), but why bother?

    On the good side of things, yesterday I took delivery on Killing Quarry.
    On the debatable side, any hope that The Penguins will put out a POD edition of Mike Hammer Vol. 4?
    (Not holding my breath, but one never knows …)
    (Do one?)

    (And do I now have to apologize for cultural appropriation?)

    In the Words of the Prophet: Nertz.

    ‘Til next I see you …

  8. Gerard says:

    I ran across the uproar over the weekend and wondered what had happened. Thanks for the write-up. I’m very glad to hear you made the extra effort to extend your personal apologies.

  9. Again, I appreciate the support and understanding more than I can say.

  10. Graham Powell says:

    I don’t know you personally but I do by reputation, and I have heard you speak several times at various Bouchercons. I first heard of this controversy on Saturday night, and I immediately thought you might have said some thing a bit off color (I once heard you jokingly call a fellow panelist a “prick”, though everone laughed), but I knew that you had not intended to offend anybody. That’s just not you. I hope anyone who’s offended will recognize that your apology is sincere and we can put this in the rearview mirror as soon as possible.

  11. Leigh Lundin says:

    Intent does matter. In our profession, intent makes the difference between 1st degree murder and 3rd degree manslaughter… or no charges at all.