Interview with Max McCoy
By Eddie Mishan
It's not often that a fan gets a chance to talk with one of the greatest Indiana Jones authors to ever live. However, Eddie Mishan was fortunate enough to speak with Max McCoy about his work as an Indiana Jones author. Some of Mr. McCoy's most popular Indiana Jones novels include, Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Sphinx and Indiana Jones and the Dinosaur Eggs. In our interview, Max gave us some insight into the work that goes into creating an Indiana Jones novel as well as some answers to questions that fans have been asking for years.
When did you first start writing novels?
I started spinning stories as soon as I learned how to write, and by junior high school I was churning out novel-length stuff. My first published novel, however, was The Sixth Rider, a western released by Doubleday in 1991. It was about the Dalton Gang’s 1892 raid on Coffeyville, Kansas, and was told from the viewpoint of a fictional Dalton brother. It won the Western Writers of America “Medicine Pipe Award” for Best First Novel. Imagine my surprise when, at the 1992 WWA convention in Jackson, Wyoming (where I was picking up the award) I met one of my influences, Richard Matheson, who was also receiving an award. Matheson, who is best known as a horror screenwriter, is the author of Duel, The Night Stalker, What Dreams May Come, many of the classic Twilight Zone scripts, and about a million other things. Imagine also my delight when Matheson turned out to be just as charming and helpful as I had always imagined he would be.
You have been an inspiration to many to start writing and to pursue a career in writing. Was there someone or maybe some event that inspired you to start writing novels?
Do I have to pick just one? Well, I’ve already talked about Richard Matheson… but there are dozens of other writers I could name, as well as events that are probably significant only to me. Some writers: Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard F. Burton, H.P. Lovecraft, James Blish, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Johnson, Joan Didion, Graham Greene, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Ambrose Bierce, John McPhee, Susan Sontag, Harper Lee, Garcia Lorca. These are just the names rattling around in my head right now. Events? I’ll name just one: a desire to impress my junior high English teacher...
There are a lot of fans out there who enjoy writing and have also written Indiana Jones stories. How did you get your first job writing Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone?
I was writing westerns and historicals for Bantam and Doubleday and my editor liked the way I handled action and asked if I would be interested in trying an Indiana Jones adventure. I wrote a sample chapter, which became the first chapter in Philosopher’s Stone.
Were you an Indiana Jones fan prior to writing your series of novels? If so, which was your favorite Indiana Jones film?
You bet. I remember going to a drive-in in Joplin, Missouri to see a movie that I’d never heard of, but which had an intriguing title: Raiders of the Lost Ark. By the time the boulder was rolling after Indy, I was hooked. I also remember thinking: “Somebody gets paid to write this stuff, and it must be the greatest job in the world.” My favorite movie is still Raiders. It had it all.
Would you say that you have a formula for writing an Indiana Jones novel and what is that formula?
Nope, no formula. Each of the books is a little different in approach, even though there are some continuing themes that tie them together.
It’s obvious that every Indiana Jones adventure should have plenty of action, an artifact, a girl, and bad guys, that sort of thing. In your Indiana Jones novels, were there any other specific elements from the films that you tried to include in your books?
The primary element that comes from the films is this question about the supernatural that Indy keeps bumping up against: Does magic work? When Indy is teaching his college classes, his answer is No, of course not. Do I look superstitious? But the rest of the time, when he’s in these desperate situations amid fantastic adventures, he’s like the rest of us, who whistle past the graveyard for courage. He’s seen enough strange stuff to know that the answer is Maybe. And when he’s tied to a post telling Marian not to look as the Nazis open the Ark, the answer is Yes, of course magic works, do you think I’m an idiot?
Was the Indiana Jones of your novels in any way different from the Indiana Jones of the films?
I attempted to portray my character as the Indy of Raiders. Chronologically, they take place closer to that film than to any of the others. Also, the Raiders Indy was a bit darker than the hero of the subsequent films. Not evil, just a shade rougher, and a little closer to Belloq than he would like to admit. In Raiders, Indy had to decide to be a hero. In the later films, it’s just taken for granted he is.
How much freedom did you have when you wrote your Indiana Jones novels? Did Lucasfilm monitor and edit your work, or did you have a lot of room to be creative?
I had quite a bit of freedom. I came up with my own plots, and although they were approved by Lucasfilm, the things that happened in them were my own invention. As far as editing, the only places where Lucasfilm suggested changes was where it might have conflicted with what was already known about Indy.
Were there any ideas you had while writing your Indiana Jones novels that were rejected or changed by Lucasfilm?
Sure. My favorite idea featured the Spear of Destiny. Unfortunately, it conflicted with a storyline already in development at Dark Horse comics, so I had to abandon it.
This is an Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Sphinx question: where did you come up with the idea for the Omega Book?
The Bible’s Book of Life. Also, some of the Edgar Cayce prophecies that an ultimate repository of knowledge would be found beneath the Sphinx, some type of archive that would chronicle the lives of every single person on earth. I’m not sure that is how Cayce phrased it, but that seemed to be the gist.
Let me first say that I am a big fan of your writings and you are my personal favorite Indiana Jones novelist. The thing that I noticed the most about your work was the Crystal Skull motif that played out beautifully through each of your 4 novels. I was wondering if you had originally planned to include the quest for the Crystal Skull in each novel or if you just spontaneously had the idea to expand the Crystal Skull theme and tagged it onto your novels in the form of prologues and epilogues culminating with Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Sphinx, where Indy finds and returns the skull? (Submitted by Greg)
Thanks. I planned the Crystal Skull episodes from the start, because I wanted a continuing story to play from book to book, and I knew Indy would have to return the skull. But I expected it would play a bigger part in the last book… originally, I had written a time-travel sequence for the last book, but only portions of it survived. Nobody was thrilled with it. They kept saying, “but this is science fiction.” And I’d say, yes, what do you think the other stories are? They aren’t just adventure. Remember when Belloq described the Ark as a “radio transmitter for talking to God?” Now, that sent chills down my spine.
It takes a special kind of creativity to think up an Indiana Jones adventure. I was wondering where you got the inspirations for the artifacts and enigmas that Indy goes in search for in your novels. Were they subjects that you were previously intrigued with and perhaps knowledgeable about, or did you have to do some research in order to write the novel in a professional manner?
I had most of the research in hand before writing the Indy novels. I love reading weird stuff and I will jot down particularly good story ideas, so I had a number of my own plots to choose from. But I still had to do a fair amount of research because, after all, we’re talking about stories that take place in the 1930s, and across the world. Take the first book, for example: In Philosopher’s Stone, I knew I wanted to use the fascist Italian aviator Italo Balbo as a character, but there was a lot of work involved in describing the type of plane he flew, his prior adventures, and so forth.
The cover art for your novels are beautifully done, they act as a teaser for the book itself, beckoning the reader to pick up the book and find out what’s in it. When you were writing your Indiana Jones novels, what sort of collaboration was there between you and the world-renounced artist, Drew Struzan?
Drew did a great job on the book covers, and he did it all on the basis of a story outline. I would sketch out the major characters and events, describe some of the aircraft or whatever else would be in the story, and perhaps there was an unusual element, such as the one-eared dog in Dinosaur Eggs. And Drew would essentially do a movie poster, except horizontally, to wrap around a book. And of course, you couldn’t have do effective book covers without portraying Harrison Ford as Indy.
Do you have a personal favorite Indiana Jones novel?
Did you ever have any plot or story ideas for an Indiana Jones story that were never written or published?
Several. Don’t know what, if anything, I’ll do with them.
Would you ever consider writing another Indiana Jones novel?
I’m pretty busy now – one of the projects I’m working on is a novelization of Into the West, a Steven Spielberg project that will air on Turner next year, and I’ve also started writing thrillers such as The Moon Pool – but it would be nice to return to the Indy adventures one day.
Would you do an Indiana Jones IV novel if they asked you do write the book for the film? And do you have any personal ideas of what you would want that story to be?
I would certainly consider it. Yes, I have ideas of what Indy IV should be, but I’ll just keep them to myself. There’s a lot of difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay, and everybody who loves the Indy films naturally considers themselves an expert on what Indy IV should be. But it must be terribly hard for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, after these three terrific films, to get together and agree on a premise that will do the series justice. Not to mention the guy hired to write it. That’s a pretty tall job all around. Also, there would be the concern that perhaps you should just leave things alone, that perhaps one more movie just isn’t needed. Instead of going nuts about whether there will be an Indy IV, maybe we should be thankful that was a Raiders at all, considering how hard it is to make a movie, let alone a good one. If we get another one, it’s a gift. And from my point of view, I think it would have been the most fun to have been Lawrence Kasdan, the Raiders screenwriter. Imagine: Nobody’s even heard of Indiana Jones yet…
If you had the chance to go back and write all of your Indiana Jones novels over again, would you change anything or do anything different?
I think writers would always do things differently, if they had the chance. I’ve rewritten some stories more than a dozen times. But I wouldn’t rewrite any of the Indy stories, just change some things here and there. Overall, I’m happy with the way they turned out. I’m glad people like them.
Do you have any advice to share with aspiring writers out there who wish to start writing novels?
Write what you’d like to read. If your thing is mysteries, or romances, or science fiction, then that’s what you should be doing. Learn the basics. Finish what you write. Figure out some way to support yourself (and your kids, if you have them) until you can make a living at what you really want to do. Believe in yourself, because if you don’t, nobody else will. And finally, the toughest thing, have something to say.
Interview conducted on: October 28th, 2004