It’s difficult to discuss my collaboration with my wife Barb without making it sound like a love letter. Those who know her will understand why it’s tough for me to do otherwise. Funny, smart, gifted, generous, hardworking – and trust me, that’s not me I’m talking about. Lucky stiff covers that. Also, she’s beautiful, but I guess you aren’t supposed to point that out anymore.
When she and I graduated from Muscatine Community College in 1968, I went on to the University of Iowa for two more undergraduate years and another year and half for my Master of Fine Arts at the Writers Workshop. Meanwhile (as we say in the funnies), Barb went to work at the First National Bank in nearby Muscatine, Iowa, where we lived then (and still do). She and my parents put me through school while Barb rose in the banking ranks, over the next ten years. When I landed the gig writing the Dick Tracy syndicated strip in late 1977, she stepped down from her banking position and received a retirement banquet – she was maybe thirty.
Barb sought a business degree at Iowa Wesleyan, taking most of her classes here at MCC, graduated (again), ready to go back into banking or something, then had our son Nathan Allan Collins instead. He proved a good investment, and to this day our proudest collaboration.
Barb was always the first reader of my work and my sharp-eyed editor, with an instinctively good story sense honed by our incessant movie-going. In the late ‘80s, I was snowed under with work – the Tracy strip, the monthly Ms. Tree comic book, Batman for a while, Wild Dog for a while, and researching and writing Nathan Heller novels at a good clip. I enlisted Barb to help out on Tracy. She would turn my pencil layouts with dialogue and brief descriptions into finished typed script for artist Dick Locher.
At some point, artist Terry Beatty and I were doing Ms. Tree and Wild Dog simultaneously and needed help. Our back-up feature, The Mike Mist Minute Mist-ery, meant I always had a couple of extra pages to write. Again, I enlisted Barb, giving her just a brief synopsis of the mystery and its solution. She began writing the Mike Mist strip. Then Terry needed to get out from under drawing the back-up feature, and I asked Barb if she would try writing Mike Mist as a prose story, in the fashion of the old “filler” stories in comic books.
This she did, and I remember reading the first one and saying to her, “You know, this is good – a little too goddamn good!” She was a natural.
There are undoubtedly those among wannabe writers – that crowd who have loved to read and write since childhood and for whom writing published fiction is an impossible dream that they keep tilting at – who will hate Barb when I reveal that she never had any ambition to write. She was not a voracious reader. Nancy Drew was about it. She did love Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV and it shows in her work.
She reads quite a bit now, although it’s mostly biographies (and manga her son has translated), though she has read Roald Dahl’s short stories, after having her work frequently compared to his.
Anyway, in 1990, with the late, great anthologist Martin Greenberg, I assembled a collection of original stories about Dick Tracy as a tie-in to the Warren Beatty film. As Barb was doing well with the Mist prose stories, I invited her to write a story about Tracy’s wife, Tess. She did, and it was fine, easily one of the best in the book.
Marty Greenberg and my late pal Ed Gorman began inviting her to contribute stories to various original anthologies of theirs, in particular the Cat Crimes series. Barb was not, and is not, a fan of cats, and her stories were usually about evil cats or kidnapped cats or dead cats. These excellent cat tales (get it?) were collected in a number of Year’s Best anthologies and in a collection of Barb’s, Too Many Tomcats (available in a Wolfpack edition).
I began collaborating occasionally on stories with Barb. It started when I read a story of hers (I was her first reader, too) and told her, “You’ve skipped a scene. You need to do this-and-that right here.” She said, “Then you write it.”
And I said, “Only if I share the byline.”
Which I did, but we never worked that way again. In future, when we did stories together, we co-plotted over a restaurant meal or on a drive somewhere, and then she would write the first draft and I would write the second. She’d have final say, but usually left well enough alone.
That’s an interesting characteristic of Barb’s approach to fiction writing. When we collaborate on fiction, she digs in and is an incredibly thorough, hard worker; her pace is much slower than mine and she spends a lot of time on any story or novel. A lot. And when she’s finished with her draft, she claims to be sick of what she’d done and doesn’t care what I do with it.
Now occasionally she will find me leaving out a good line of hers or giving an inappropriate male spin to something inherently female, and files a complaint; but surprisingly little of that goes down.
Barb began trying out novel ideas as short stories – to get them on their feet. Her story “Regeneration” was, I thought, particularly good, and worthy of a novel. We decided to attempt that together. It came out well and was published in 1999 by Leisure Books, and has been reprinted several times (and is currently available in a Wolfpack edition). Regeneration presented a headhunting outfit who approached executives (particularly women) who had been let go for bogus reasons when ageism was the real reason. These headhunters offer their clients (for a huge share of a yearly salary) a program of plastic surgery, wonder drugs, and schooling to accompany new, younger identities into the work force. It’s a darkly humorous tale that, unlike the Baby Boomers, hasn’t aged a bit.
“Bombshell,” Barb’s short story about Marilyn Monroe meeting Nikita Khrushchev, became our somewhat comic espionage novel of the same name in 2004. It, too, has been published several times, with a new Wolfpack edition available.
Around this time we were approached by Michaela Hamilton, an editor at Kensington who had been my Nathan Heller editor at Dutton. She was interested in having me do something for her but warned me she couldn’t use tough guy stuff – it needed to be cozy. Was I up for that?
A few years before, Barb and I had developed an idea for a mother-and-daughter amateur sleuth team whose hobby was antiques; our agent had discouraged us from pursuing it, but it felt right for what Michaela was after.
With a few revisions, we sent the proposal in and Michaela immediately wrote back and said, “You don’t understand – there are elements we must have in our cozies. We need a young woman, perhaps thirty. We need an older woman, perhaps in her sixties. We need a cute pet. We need a unique setting. And we need a gimmick.”
We already had the mother and daughter team. We set about creating something that fit Michaela’s want list but with our tongues firmly in cheek...or I should say subversively in cheek.
Set in Serenity, Iowa, a picturesque (and fictional) Midwestern Mississippi river town, the books balance a solid murder mystery with the ongoing, episodic travails of the Borne girls – Brandy (thirty, recently-divorced, Prozac-popping) and Vivian (AKA Mother, seventy, long-widowed, bi-polar). Plus Sushi, their diabetic shih tzu.
To keep Mother out of trouble (and on her meds), Brandy turns to their shared interest in antiques, first opening a stall at a local antiques mall, and eventually a “Trash ‘n’ Treasures” shop. Their money limited, the Bornes are Christie’s style antiquers only in the Agatha sense – they are frequenters of garage sales, flea markets and yard sales...and are not above Dumpster-diving.
We loved it and felt certain it would be rejected, since we were meeting every requirement on Michalea’s list with a smirk. We sent her a revised proposal and two sample chapters.
Her acceptance letter was as follows: “More!”
In collaborations where one writer does the first draft and another writer does the second, the first writer must – in my view at least – take precedence where plot and general direction and even character development are concerned. This is true even when the second writer is the one with the bigger name and/or reputation. The person who first hacked a path through the jungle must be respected.
The Antiques series – AKA. the Trash ‘n’ Treasures Mysteries – is a world largely created by Barb. Her late mother suffered from mental illness, but at times (as is often the case) dark comedy was the result. While the mother in the Antiques novels doesn’t really resemble Barb’s mom in any significant way, Barb having been raised by someone with such problems provides a significant realistic underpinning.
When we kick ideas around for a new story, I always defer to Barb. This means abandoning or at least postponing ideas of mine that I really like. But Barb is the one who has to care about the story, and the subject, enough to write the thing in the first place.
When we started out, however, both of us thought Brandy would be the sleuth and Mother would be the comedy relief. But as is so often the case, the characters told us who they were and how they wanted to behave without asking our opinion, much less permission. Mother – despite her eccentric, local theater-diva persona and ways – proved the real sleuth of the two, and the put-upon Brandy is as often the comedy relief as her mother.
Barb came up with several good gimmicks, in the best sense. She developed a soap opera aspect (again, in the best sense) that could create story arcs that continued through several books. This allows each novel to resolve its mystery utterly but have a cliffhanger involving the emotional lives of the main players.
Additionally, to fulfill the editor’s desire for a gimmick, Barb developed antiquing tips that would appear at the end of each chapter and reflect the antiquing area that the current entry focused upon. Clever, often punning chapter titles added to the fun, even if Serenity, Iowa, is littered with more murdered bodies than a serial killer’s backyard.
I’m not sure which of us came up with giving Vivian her own first-person chapters. Probably Barb. Initially it was one chapter, and now it’s up to about two-and-a-half. This allows Vivian to accuse Brandy of being an unreliable narrator and vice versa. It also allows us to follow half of our team here, and the other half of our team there. Confession: Brandy is the character most like Barb, and Vivian is the character most like me.
We also began having fun with our first-person narrators not being professional writers and breaking all sorts of writing rules (including an over-use of parentheses) (which drives some readers crazy) (and delights us when it does). Brandy and Mother also get into lengthy discussions/arguments with their editors when the girls – Mother especially – drift off topic, as when Vivian discusses how annoying it is for a waitress to say, “No problem.” Mother tries her best to straighten these poor young women out (“Why? Was there a problem?”). Changing the world, she says, one waitress at a time!
Like Nero Wolfe, Mother is really kind of an awful human being. But an amusing one. And, oddly, a hell of a detective.
And now it’s sixteen novels later (counting the one Barb is doing her draft of now – Antiques Liquidation) and one collection of a trio of Christmas novellas, too (Antiques Ho Ho Homicides). We are at a new publisher – Severn House – with Antiques Carry On recently continuing the pleasant tradition of positive reviews; we’ve even won a Best Humorous Mystery of the Year award from Romantic Times.
The question we get most often is, predictably, how do you write together and stay married? Well, chiefly it’s because we work apart. The short answer is: our offices are on different floors. The long answer is more complicated, but it begins with Barb working by herself. We plot the books together, including a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. But unless she has a problem she’d like help with, she doesn’t show me any of what she’s doing.
As I said, she professes to be sick of the book by the time she hands her draft over for me to expand and revise – that’s part of our method: her draft tends to be at least fifty pages shorter than the manuscript we need to turn in. At the outset, she wrote perhaps two-thirds of the novel before I waded in; but as she has grown more confident and blossomed as a writer, my job becomes expansion (mostly of dialogue), fleshing out action scenes, and making sure plot points are clear.
We both put in as many jokes as we can think of. The books are funny – no modesty here. They make people laugh, even while we deliver a solid mystery. The secret is that we are both rather witty, and when both of us lay on the funny stuff, we add up to one extremely comical human being.
Our byline, Barbara Allan, is of course Barb’s first name and my middle name. But I was raised an “Allan” (and “Al”) because my father was “Max” (I am Max Allan Collins, Jr.). Barb and I have been married since 1968, but we were first boy friend and girl friend in the fifth grade (it didn’t last). But Barb from time to time will say, “Is it strange that little Allan Collins and little Barbie Mull wound up writing books together?”
All I can say is, if I’d been a brain surgeon, she’d have picked it up on the side.