John Dunning Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

John Dunning
Rykken Johnson

John Dunning

An interview with John Dunning

Dunning explains the story behind Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime?, his novel set in the world of 1930s and '40s radio.

What's the story behind Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime?
It's a novel I've wanted to write for years -- to show what it was like to work in radio when it was the top entertainment medium in the country. Even movies took a back seat to radio in the Thirties and Forties, especially in the Thirties. The country was in the middle of a depression and people couldn't afford to go out. It cost a dime or a quarter to see Eddie Cantor on the screen -- you got him free on the radio, and it was all live, that was the excitement and magic of it, it was happening right then as you were listening to it. There was no phony laugh track, a comic lived or died by his material, and there were a dozen ways a dramatic show could fall apart. But when it worked, ah, man!...there were some great shows, some almost perfect pieces of air. Radio was a wonderfully creative business then, but everything you read and see plays it as high camp, as if the entire radio era was directed by Woody Allen. It wasn't like that, not to the actors who did fifteen shows a week, not to the writers who created what went on the air. To them it was the stuff of life. And at its best it approached high art. That's what my book is about. The lost art of radio.

At the same time, this is a mystery, right? How did you come up with a mystery for radio?
With great difficulty. Nobody likes to hear how hard a writer's job is, so I'll spare you most of it. Let's just say that, as far as the writing goes, this was my ultimate seek-and-hope-to-find book. I probably wrote 5,000 pages on the various drafts of this book, and most of it was groping through a wilderness, trying to find something I could only feel and couldn't adequately define.
Now I look back at it and I see why so many ideas were fully written out and then rejected. I needed a plot that enhanced the notion of radio as a medium of the mind, not a story that merely stated that or played on it. The reader has to see it, step into it, become part of it, or it doesn't work. I didn't want a hint of nostalgia in this book, I wanted it to be as real as a man pouring a cup of coffee in the morning. That's what Jack Webb said about his goals for Dragnet 50 years ago, and that's how I felt about this.

On the face of it, the mystery story is a great way to get into something. But in a traditional mystery the puzzle takes top billing over everything. That's a rule as old as mystery writing itself, and it's almost impossible to break it. That was the main problem with the writing of this book, how to be true to the mystery and still keep the radio story on an equal level.

How did you do that?
I can tell you how I tried to do it. For months I groped around and wrote hundreds of pages, looking for away into it. I must have tried a dozen different plot ideas before I realized that the book's only chance was for the mystery and radio stories to become one. Radio would not be a simple backdrop, it demanded to be at the heart of it. And that set up more problems than I ever imagined because I wanted the hero, Jack, to come to it cold. I wanted him to get his radio experience from the ground up, as a novice, as any reader might if he stepped back in time to 1942, when the novel is set, and found himself at that radio station. Hopefully, it then becomes a voyage of discovery for both the character and the reader. In the beginning he's not only an outsider, he has a rather negative opinion of broadcasting. Radio is frivolous in his mind, it's not a forum for serious dramatic expression. Jack is a novelist who never would have gone into radio on his own. It's the mystery that forced him there. The mystery involves his old flame, Holly, and it's her trouble that pulls Jack all the way across the country to this noisy little beach town in New Jersey, and to work at the radio station where Holly sings with a small band every Saturday night.

It sounds like the mysteries of the flesh play a fairly large part in it.
That's true in everything I write. There's always an erotic foundation, some male-female business at the heart of it. The thing between Holly and Jack had to be strong stuff in my mind or I couldn't have written it.

Where do you get your characters?
From myself, mostly. This doesn't mean that I am literally anybody in the book, but I am certainly as much Holly as I am Jack. There are people who get inside your heart, and parts of them swirl together and come out when you need a Holly or a Jack. She is a mix of women who have come my way. Sometimes it's somebody you barely knew, sometimes it's someone as close as your father. My dad was a big man like Jack, and like Jack he was from South Carolina: he was a cabinetmaker like Jack's father, but he is certainly not Jack, and Holly bears no resemblance to anybody in my family.

What was it about radio that got you going? Why did you turn away from your Cliff Janeway book hunter series just when they were perhaps on the verge of real success?
In some ways this is a lot like the book world, it's a big part of my life. And I'm not just talking about the 20-odd years I spent doing a radio show. I grew up with radio drama, I can remember so well the incredible involvement the listener had with those radio shows. That stays with you, it's something you never really forget. I don't care how many special effects movies or TV develop, after a while even the destruction of the universe is just another explosion, something to watch from a distance. But radio came from inside you. Of course when you're a kid you don't realize that -it wasn't until many years later that I came to know how great some of the shows really were. I'm not talking about The Shadow now, or The Lone Ranger. Most of the shows that were great are virtually unknown today.

What were some of them?
You could start with the lesser-known Norman Corwin shows -- not the patriotic stuff, which was great in its own way but was produced for a specific purpose -- I'm thinking more of Corwin's one-shot stories, running from heavy drama to whimsy. Then there was Vic and Sade -- Paul Rhymer, who wrote that series, was compared to Mark Twain as a great American humorist. It was John O'Hara I believe who made that comparison, and I second it. Or how about Destination Freedom, Richard Durham's courageous and powerful 1948 series about the struggles of the black race in a Jim Crow world? I used that series as a model for my own black show in Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime. I wanted to illustrate what could be done in a crusading way with radio drama under an eccentric but sympathetic station owner. Even series shows, thriller dramas like Suspense, westerns like Gunsmoke and Frontier Gentlemen, had their high spots that stand out in the mind. But maybe my favorite radio show was On Stage with Cathy and Elliott Lewis, which ran on CBS in1953-54. Each week they did one self-contained short story with a strong male-female conflict. It was just superb, and the recordings that survive today prove that radio should never have been discarded for TV. As a medium radio deserved better. It was the perfect vehicle for short story dramatization, the ideal partner for the printed word. You should hear what NBC Presents Short Story (another great series) did with Shirley Jackson's horror classic, The Lottery.

I hate to use this line because it's overworked, but it's true: by requiring you to use your imagination, radio had a far greater canvas than TV can ever hope to have. I think it was Stan Freberg who said, "I like radio because the pictures are better."

A project like this must have involved years of research.
Yeah, but it was ongoing, so that -- like the background for books in the Janeway novels -- I absorbed it over a period of years. We were very lucky with radio, in that the technology for preserving the shows was available from at least the early 1930s on. Most of network radio was done live, but engineers had the capability to make airchecks of what was heard: recordings of live radio shows as they were happening. These airchecks were saved by the thousands -- by tens of thousands -- and by 1969 I had become aware that many of these programs had been transferred from their cumbersome acetate discs onto recording tape. It was fascinating to hear these things again, not only the shows I had heard as a kid but the whole range of radio broadcasting -- band remotes, newscasts, comedy, drama, you name it. I began to collect this stuff, and then one day in 1972 a local station heard about me and my radio shows and asked me to do a program. I did it for years on various stations in Denver. At KADX, the late great jazz station, they gave me the whole Sunday afternoon to play with. I would play a few shows, always in their entirety, always uninterrupted with all the original commercials and announcements, and then I'd play old music -- some jazz, some schmaltz, whatever fit the theme. And for a couple of years I conducted live interviews by telephone with some of the stars, sound effects people, writers, producers, from the old days. Most of them were in their seventies then. I had to do some real detective work to track them down, then I'd call them up and I'd interview them for an hour or more. And I picked up a lot of folklore doing that. Most of the people I interviewed then are dead now, but I recorded our talks and they are on file at the Broadcast Pioneers Library.

Who are some of these people you talked to?
Oh, God, let me see...I did at least 125 of these interviews, and I had a great sponsor, the Public Service Company of Colorado, which was satisfied to have its message aired around the edges of the programs, so I never had to interrupt anything. They sponsored me for something like ten years, and I could do long continuous live interviews with anybody I could get on. I had Corwin on twice, and Elliott Lewis three times. Richard Durham came on and told me how they'd done Destination Freedom in Chicago. That was such a strong series. They had no budget and they were tucked away on Sunday morning, but Durham's writing was so strong that a group of white supremacists came out and picketed his station. And I had Howard Duff, who played Sam Spade on the air, and on one show I had Janet Waldo and Sam Edwards, who were Corliss and Dexter, long ago on Meet Corliss Archer. I had Jim Jordan, who played Fibber McGee, but he was just as cantankerous as his character and he spent the whole time arguing with me and my assumptions. And Phil Harris and Dennis Day from The Jack Benny Program, and George Balzer, who was one of Benny's writers, and Frank Nelson, who was such a memorable stooge -- Frank told me his whole purpose was just to "annoy the hell out of Jack Benny" every week. For one show I found a BBC engineer who used to go up on the rooftops with Murrow in London during the blitz -- I found him living in Minnesota, and he came on and was great. I remember him telling me about Murrow standing on the edge of the building when a German bomb fell in the streets a block or two away. "If it just got a little closer," Murrow said, "we could pick it up on mike." But the BBC guy said that was plenty close enough for him.

Let's see, who else? -- I had both Parley Baer and Georgia Ellis on one show. Parley had played Chester and Georgia was Kitty on the radio Gunsmoke. I tried to get William Conrad, who was Matt Dillon, but he was a tough man to pin down and I never did get him. I did have Paul Frees, who was one of Conrad's best friends and with Conrad was one of the two lead voices on the great CBS adventure series, Escape. And I had Berne Surrey, the CBS sound effects man, who did all the early versions of Sorry, Wrong Number with Agnes Moorehead on Suspense. Then there were the newsmen, Charles Collingwood and Eric Sevaried and Larry Lesueur. Collingwood was a great guy -- I later met him in Denver and he told me that when he was covering the war in North Africa he was known as the only man in the press corps who knew where to get his pants pressed. Sevareid didn't want to come on at first, but I dubbed off a piece of tape I had of his coverage on the Italian front around 1944, and I sent it to him at CBS. He told me his wife was reduced to tears when she heard it, and he agreed to come on for a few minutes. He stayed the whole hour. And Larry Lesueur was one of my favorite shows -- he was also one of "Murrow's boys" in London. He and Sevareid roomed together in 1940, when the blitz was at its worst. I started the show by playing an actuality with Lesueur from that summer. It was a wonderful piece in great sound, and just as he began his report the air raid sirens cut loose. I tell you, there is no other sound on earth like that.

Are any of these people actually in the book?
No, they are just part of my own past, of my gradual enlightenment and understanding of how radio was done. I never intended to write what they call a roman-a-clef, or one of those books where real celebrities of the past do walk-ons and help the hero solve the mystery. Fred Allen Solves the Murder -- that's not my thing. No, this is a story about one man and how he comes from nowhere to work in a medium he couldn't care less about, how he discovers his true calling in that world, and how it finally comes to mean everything to him. There are very few real shows even mentioned in the book. When it opens Jack is sitting in a jail cell listening to The Charlie McCarthy Show, and later to Walter Winchell, on the deputy's radio. But this is just background. At some point one of the characters mentions her own favorite shows, Vic and Sade and One Man's Family, and Jack himself is aware of the station's network schedule. He knows when band shows like Jimmy Dorsey or Lionel Hampton come on: he knows about the soap operas, John's Other Wife, and Amanda of Honeymoon Hill. But in the main this is Jack's story. In a way it's a coming-of-age piece, this is the beginning of his radio journey, and it doesn't matter if he's 32 years old or any age.

What about actual library research? -- you still, must have had to do a lot of that.
Oh yeah. Not specifically for this book, but there's a lot of digging through old radio schedules, poring over old Radio Guide and Radio Life magazines, in my past. All through the early and mid-Nineties I was writing a nonfiction book on radio (On the Air, for Oxford University Press). I really had to knuckle down and do some hard research for that. It took five or six years all told. By the time I was ready to start Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime, I was pretty well grounded in radio. So though I really didn't do any specific research for this novel, in another sense I had been researching it forever.

Does this book have series possibilities?
That's not likely, given the way it ends. And I have never believed in long-running series characters anyway. You write a book and use up all your energy, and very seldom can you go back and recapture that spark that got you into it. I can't imagine writing a book a year for 20 years with the same character. The longer you go, the staler you get. There's a good reason why Raymond Chandler is still considered a mystery icon after 60 years. He only wrote half a dozen novels. If he had written 20 Marlowe books, would we still care as much? I believe that in series novels, fewer is always better than more, and these books should never be written to contract, with a schedule that must be met.

Does this mean we have seen the last of Janeway?
In fact, I do have a Janeway idea cooking, but God knows, given the way I write, when it will come to pass. I didn't intend to turn away from Janeway, I only wanted to give him a rest and let his bookman's cup fill up again. But the last thing I wanted to do with Janeway was beat him into the ground with a long run of book-of-the-year problems. I'd rather use the Chandler model of six books max. I'd like to tell the story of the book trade as I know it in four, five, six Janeway books, whatever it turns out to be. In that span I want to tell about all the craziness in the book world today. At the heart of each is a book or a book theme that illustrates some different aspect of that world, some new thing each time.

Now this is going to be more difficult than I imagined. The book world has changed so much even since The Bookman's Wake came out in 1995. I can't just have Janeway operating in that old world before computers took us over, and at the same time I don't want him to age too fast. It's amazing, isn't it? -- if I write about the book world as it was just ten years ago, it's a period piece.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Bookwoman's Last Fling jacket The Sign of The Book jacket Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime jacket
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