Maynard's passion for writing began in childhood and was fueled by an early love of detective and thriller fiction. He was licensed by Sax Rohmer's Literary Estate to continue the Fu Manchu thrillers. The Terror of Fu Manchu, published in 2009, was a Pulp Factory Awards nominee for Best Pulp Novel. The Destiny of Fu Manchu was published in 2012. Maynard's short fiction has appeared in The Ruby Files (2012/Airship 27), Gaslight Grotesque (2009/EDGE Publishing), and Tales of the Shadowmen (2009/Black Coat Press). William Maynard is a former weekly columnist for The Cimmerian and is currently a weekly columnist for The Black Gate. He has contributed to Blood 'n'Thunder and other periodicals.
Popular fiction fans are currently celebrating the centennial of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. Rohmer first described his infamous character in the short story, The Zayat Kiss: "Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green." Rohmer's tales captured the world's imagination and spawned a hundred years (and counting!) of novels, films, radio dramas, comic books, comic strips, and television shows. One of the great archetypal villains, Fu Manchu may be best remembered from the films starring Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, but Rohmer's vision of the character, like Fleming's literary James Bond, was more nuanced than his cinematic counterpart. Rohmer published fourteen Fu Manchu books (one posthumously), before passing away at the age of seventy-six in 1959. Two continuation novels were written by Cay Van Ash in the 1980s. The fiendish pulp villain has returned again in William Maynard's official Fu Manchu novels. Sax Rohmer's original novels are currently published by Titan Books.
Welcome to Spy Vibe, Bill. When did you first discover the world of pulps? Were there specific characters or images that drew your attention?
I’m not sure at what age I first learned the phrase “pulp fiction.” I was very young. I knew it was the cheap paper the original magazines were printed on, but I was buying Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard paperbacks at an early age. Tarzan and Conan were really my introduction to the form in the 1970s. The great Neal Adams, Boris Vallejo, and Frank Frazetta covers for Ballantine and Ace were what drew me in. Buscema’s Conan and Tarzan for Marvel were actually first for me so blame him and Roy Thomas for all of this.
Were you also a fan of comic books, cliffhanger serials, or old-time radio shows growing up? What were some of your favorites?
I was a big Marvel kid, certainly. I saw cliffhangers on a PBS show called “Matinee at the Bijou” which was a revelation since I knew all about them as a source for Star Wars - Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon being the starting point. My parents were born in the early 1940s so they had some knowledge of this stuff but nothing tangible. It was all something I held onto and guarded fiercely as I sought it out. I’ve become a big OTR fan, but that didn’t come until much later for me.
Did you collect as a kid? What were some of your treasures? What was it about the designs or stories that fired your imagination?
I collected comics and paperbacks as a kid. I had an old fashioned toy box crammed with them for years. I was fortunate there were some great used bookstores and a very good library system when I was growing up. If there had been an internet then, I probably wouldn’t have any Holy Grails left to hunt today. I loved everything from Burroughs and Howard to space fantasy to Tolkien to Planet of the Apes. It was all the same to me. No difference between those or The Incredible Hulk or Godzilla. Those were my classics and I couldn’t rank them had I tried. The design definitely captured me. The usual sex and violence appeal I suppose. A lot of it I liked because it was like looking at our family’s copy of The Children’s Bible, only it was exciting. Samson was cool, but he had nothing on Hercules or Conan or Kull or Tarzan.
Many of us collected paperback editions of Ian Fleming, Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, etc. Did you get into this genre?
Spy stuff came later for me. Around age 12 I think. I went nuts about the Connery Bonds and collected Fleming and Gardner. It took years before I finally saw UNCLE or The Avengers. Of course, Bond was quickly overtaken by Sax Rohmer and that blew everything else out of the water for me.
Are there pieces in your collection that you treasure most? Are you still hunting for cool artifacts?
I have lots of treasures. A lot of it has gone to my kids which is nice to see them enjoy it while I’m still here to share it with them. Twice in my life I’ve come close to getting a complete set of Allan Wingate editions of the Fu Manchu books. They’re the only matched hardcover set with dust jackets. I have more than most people believe exist, but I still have a few titles eluding me. There are about five relatively common ones, but the rest were printed in very small numbers apparently. It’s easier finding the limited Bookfinger editions than those.
How much do you look at vintage media as a way to prepare for an assignment?
I do read what people wrote at the time or watch newsreel footage to get a sense of things in their true perspective. Letters can help, if you find them readily enough, but it’s tricky because political correctness wants to rewrite everything. You have to walk a very fine line.
What was your journey from fan to published writer?
Well, I always wrote from the time I was a little kid. Comic books, short stories, plays, scripts, you name it. The thing was I finished very little. I analyzed books and screenplays like crazy to see what worked and what didn’t, but I was undisciplined as a writer. All of this happened on a lark sort of. I wanted to write, but I never expected to make it. There were so many missteps that you write more out of a cathartic need than out of anything else. You write because it’s easier than not writing. That’s the simplest way of explaining it. The discipline part comes in making a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Without that, it’s easier and more attractive to be promiscuous with your projects starting and discarding one idea for the next while searching for the perfect one.
Did you ever imagine that you would be able to write for iconic characters like Fu Manchu? What have been some of your favorite projects so far?
There was a moment when I was pissed off at a boss I had when I was a kid who laughed at me for reading Sax Rohmer that it crossed my mind that I would show him and write these novels, but I don’t know where the idea came from. A couple years later, a co-worker encouraged me to pursue the rights after reading some humorous send-ups I had written of the character. I did and it all fell together from there. That’s the short version that leaves out the agony of research and rewriting. I think Fu Manchu will always be my favorite project no matter how many different things I’m able to do for the same reason why Rohmer will always be my favorite writer.
How did you first discover Fu Manchu? Are you a fan of the books, serial, films, radio dramas, and TV show?
My discovery of the character was a long one. It started with Marvel’s Master of Kung-Fu title and then a showing of the Karloff Mask of Fu Manchu. Time passed and then when I was about 12 or 13 I saw the first three Chris Lee films and quickly hunted down some Pyramid paperbacks with the great Len Goldberg cover art and then the Zebra reprints started happening. Eventually the paperbacks gave way to A. L. Burt hardcover editions with dust jackets and the P. F. Colllier hardcover editions and on and on. I mainly love Rohmer, but I enjoy the movies and the TV show and the radio show. One of my proudest moments was contributing bonus content to The Serial Squadron’s restoration of the Republic serial, The Drums of Fu Manchu.
Tell us about connecting with Sax Rohmer’s estate and becoming a Fu Manchu continuation author.
It took a lot of patience. For the longest time it was hard to find who to contact. Once I found the right individuals it became a question of a query letter and then a synopsis and sample chapters and making sure you get everything right. The Literary Estate’s job is to protect the property and make sure it is treated the way the author intended. On top of that there is the whole political correctness issue which complicates matters. I have been very, very fortunate to have gone this far and God willing I’ll keep working with them for some years to come. There have only been two authorized writers (myself included) in over 50 years since Rohmer passed away. It’s a matter of luck, timing, and fidelity to the originals. These things generally don’t happen to a kid from Cleveland, Ohio.
Many casual readers will probably think about antiquated notions like “the yellow peril” when they hear the name Fu Manchu. Are there challenges you face as a writer to make the character accessible or to deal with dated attitudes about gender, race, etc.?
Cay Van Ash, the first continuation author who was also Rohmer’s protégé, chose to avoid the matter entirely and not ruffle feathers when he wrote his two books in the 1980s. I took the opposite approach and set out to deal with the Yellow Peril origins when I approached the Estate. Rohmer was certainly a product of colonial thinking, but Fu Manchu is far less offensive in his books than in the comic strips, films, radio show, and television series derived from them. I wanted to deal with the fear and prejudice head on as a plot point. That’s what got the Estate’s attention and, ultimately, won them over I believe.
Can you recall some of the lessons you had to learn when you first began to write?
I’m not done learning! You have to read as much as possible and really understand how it’s constructed and what makes it work. You have to understand your characters’ motivations and find their individual voice. If everyone talks the same, your reader is lost. Construction and character are the two keys. Structuring your story into acts and building action with rhythm is crucial but you’ll only get there from work. Reading your betters and understanding why they’re so good and writing and rewriting until you improve is what it takes. It’s laborious, but you love the result and it’s easier to do it than to stop. Sort of like an old man struggling to breathe.
Richard Sala and I have talked about the conventions that make mystery/adventure stories fun to read. Are there conventions that you love to include in your writing?
Overall, I like to look at what my characters believe or don’t and why. How their childhoods shaped them or misshaped them. How their sexual experiences shaped them or misshaped them. That’s what makes people tick to me and it helps readers understand them as flesh and blood rather than stereotypes. If I’m writing in period, and I usually do these days, I like to absorb what different political views were at the time rather than how we look back on it now. That’s a tricky point because it often makes people uncomfortable. You don’t like nice people to sympathize with the Nazis, for instance, but it happened particularly before the war.
Are there other properties that you would love to work on in the future?
I tell myself I don’t want to fall into that trap of only dreaming other people’s dreams, but I’d love to take a crack at Flash Gordon. It’s the only property I think I’d kill for and I selfishly believe few people get what made it great.
You mentioned Dr. Phibes on your blog. I really enjoy those Vincent Price films for their Pop Art sensibility and dark humor. Are you a fan of the broader genre of super criminals like Fantomas, Mabuse, Kriminal, and Diabolik?
Phibes is special and I’m happy to see he’s back in literary form at least. I am a huge Fantomas fan. I’m very proud to have had a Fantomas story published a few years ago in one of the Tales of the Shadowmen anthologies. Even more, I’m proud I’m listed in the acknowledgements in the massive omnibus of the first half-dozen books or so that was published for the centennial. That sort of thing still sends a shiver down your spine. It’s like a vindication of all those years spent chasing shadows where everyone else thought you were wasting your time. I dearly love Mabuse, particularly the three Fritz Lang films. I have aspirations for the property, but not writing new adventures. Hopefully this will make sense later.
Pulp stories that take place in the past seem to offer a satisfying cocktail of inventiveness, innocence, empathy, and mystery. Do you think pulps endure because our modern culture lacks some of these qualities?
The strange thing about fantastic fiction from Victorian times through the pulp era is most of it was written with contemporary settings. Slowly that has largely transferred to nostalgia for times past. You can still tell these stories in contemporary settings, but it’s easy to let forensics, sex crimes, drug dealers, terrorist attacks, etc. spoil the fun. There’s a point where it becomes too real and no longer escapism. I would say that’s the key. If you can keep your reader entertained, the setting can be past, present, or future. The second you’re stealing headlines, you’re no longer embracing what pulp fiction is all about.
Obscure movie reference question: Fellini had a female character (Volpina the prostitute) on the beach in Amarcord shout “Fu Manchu” to the wind, which never quite made sense to me. What do you make of it?
God, it’s been ages since I went through my Fellini phase and like any addict I have to be careful not to relapse. The meaning, since the film, like much of Fellini’s work, is about remembrance, is probably significant in having the sexy femme fatale character shout the name. She’s drawn to danger whether she means a local man or Rohmer’s work. In pulp terms, sex outside of marriage equates danger because the women are exotic and not safe and normal like the good girls. “Flash Gordon” follows the same formula very closely. That’s what I would suggest Fellini was deliberately evoking having that character shout the name. I could point out how much Dino DeLaurentiis’ campy “Flash Gordon” movie resembles a Fellini film, but that’s just asking for trouble.
We should have an original project, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke out this year and The Triumph of Fu Manchu next year. After that will be a hardboiled detective novel called Lawhead and a collection of short stories. I’ll be kept busy.
Many pulps and classic genre work has been reissued or released. Do you have beloved characters, stories, or shows that still wait for official release?
I would love to see the complete Richard Diamond, Private Detective series with David Janssen turn up including the rare pilot with Don Taylor in the role. In a perfect world, everything would be available for everyone to enjoy. That’s probably my ideal concept of heaven. It would be one big library with everything ever written or filmed in perfect condition. What could be better?
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