Paulzeye interviews “Six Days of the Condor” author James Grady
Interview by Paul Stathakis | December 6, 2011
James Grady is an accomplished American author largely known for his novel “Six Days of the Condor.” He has also written several award-winning short stories and novels over the years, including two recent novellas titled “Condor.net” and “This Given Sky.”
Born in Shelby, Montana in 1949, Grady worked a variety of odd jobs, from hay bucker to gravedigger, before graduating from the University of Montana with a degree in journalism. In 1973, when Grady was only 24, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to his book “Six Days of the Condor.” The studio then developed the novel into a major motion picture and called it “Three Days of the Condor” (released in 1975). It starred Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, and Max Von Sydow and was directed by Sydney Pollack.
A few weeks before the release of his latest novellas, Paulzeye invited Grady to do an candid interview and the author graciously accepted the invitation. What this intimate interview reveals is an author who is not a flash-in-the-pan writer in it for money or fame. He never brags about his successful career even though he was awarded France’s Grand Prix du Roman Noir, Italy’s Raymond Chandler Award, and Japan’s Baka-Misu literary prize — each top literary honors. Grady is modest and sincere. He doesn’t hide away from questions and his answers are as clear and poetic as any passage from one of his stirring novels. He’s an intellect — witty, expressive, and, more importantly, honest. After nearly five decades of writing, one thing remains certain: Grady hasn’t lost that burning passion for telling good stories.
Paulzeye: What motivated you to become a writer?
James Grady: I was compelled, not motivated. I started telling stories to my mother to write down before I was 5. For me, writing’s always been like a cross between a heroin addiction and sex. I feel like when I’m at my best, I serve some forces beyond me, take their dictation.
Paulzeye: Talk to us a little about your experience writing “Six Days of the Condor.” What inspired you to tell that story?
James Grady: Condor rode my drive to write and came from 3 main inspirations, all rooted in Washington, D.C.’s Nixon era. I was an undergraduate college intern working for Montana Sen. Lee Metcalf, living on Capital Hill when it was then considered a “rough” neighborhood. Every day I walked to and from work past a corner building with a plaque on the front for a group that sounded so bland it seemed phony (actually, the respectable American Historical Association). From that screaming place where all my stories come shot two what-if’s, the best kind of inspirational question: What if that place was a CIA front? What if I came back from lunch and found everyone in my office murdered? Then, the columnist Jack Anderson (who I later worked for) and his number one reporter Les Whitten wrote stories about the CIA and the heroin trade in Vietnam, inspired by research done by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Two years later, when I was 23 and couldn’t resist writing a novel any longer, all that fused into SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR.
Paulzeye: You were only 24 years old when Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to your novel. How did that happen?
James Grady: Absurd as it seems, I’d sold the manuscript through the mail to W.W. Norton, who in turn contracted William Morris Agency to see three of their unknown first time authors to the movies (a bold and uncommon move, but also, back then, I had no agent). Dino De Laurentiis told me he knew CONDOR was going to be a great movie after reading 4 pages.
Paulzeye: Were you involved in the process of adapting your book into the screenplay?
James Grady: No, I was way too young, and such work is contracted. I got lucky and CONDOR had two great screenwriters (David Rayfiel and Lorenzo Semple, Jr.).
Paulzeye: You told me that you had a chance to spend some time on the set of the film. What was that like?
James Grady: Surreal. I remember standing alone outside the front of the New York city building they’d “dressed” to be “my” CIA front building, staring at the plaque on the wall that made it look “real.” I walked around in a daze. Met Pollack, Redford, both of whom were gracious to me. Pollack talked to me about how he set up a couple shots, and it was like going to grad school in hyperdrive.
Paulzeye: The ending of the film is significantly different from that of your book. The film took aim at politics– primarily the situation of oil and the Middle East. What did you think of the film’s ending then?
James Grady: I thought the film was superb all the way through. The oil crisis materialized after Paramount bought the book, and Pollack, Redford and the writers realized they could not ignore the history breaking around them. One of the things I think they tried to do was capture a “behind the scenes” fictional “what if” movie about life in America right then, right there. They succeeded. First time I saw the movie was at a screening in D.C. arranged by Redford. I had just started work as an investigative reporter for Jack Anderson’s column, and the idea that “my” character would take ‘my” story to the press…wow.
Paulzeye: Do you still share the same thoughts about it now as you did then?
James Grady: Now I think the movie is even better than I thought it was back then. Also, back then, the emotionally surreal impact of having all that happening to me at that age (when the movie came out, 25) distorted any sense I had of the quality of the film. Still, I knew it was good.
Paulzeye: There are those who would argue that today’s political landscape strongly resembles that of the one seen in “Three Days of the Condor.” Do you agree with that sentiment?
James Grady: Politics is about making choices with what fate gives us. That’s what Condor does, and that’s classic, so in that sense, the political landscape is the same.
Paulzeye: You’re working on a book right now which is a “Condor” re-imagining of sorts, titled “Condor.net.” What influenced you to revisit this character? And what is the book about?
James Grady: My “re-imagining” has become a novella that will be published as an e-book by Open Road Media and Mysterious Press in October, 2011. I was driving to NYC from my home in Washington, saw the “empty scarred” skyline post-9/11…and I got mad. Wondered: How would I do Condor now? Couldn’t stop, and out came the novella.
Paulzeye: Have we seen the last of Condor or is a third novel involving the Condor character a possibility?
James Grady: I don’t see me doing another Condor novel, though a professional live community theater in Montana wants me to write it as a stage play. In my last novel MAD DOGS, I account for what happened to “that” Condor, so…
Paulzeye: You’ve remained active as a writer over the years. You’ve written several award winning short stories and novels and your latest work is a Noir novella set in Montana called “This Given Sky.” Talk to us about that project.
James Grady: My – I don’t know what to call it – let’s say “my crucible” as a writer has always been split between Washington, D.C., sort of the “we are the world” type fictional perspective and my “this is where I’m from” perspective of Montana, especially my small hometown that was a bizarre place to grow up. Only in the last 10 years, after turning 50, have I been able to write true and well about my hometown of Shelby. THIS GIVEN SKY poured out of me. I had no idea what size it was going to be, where it was going. I saw a man, 40-Something driving through the a full moon night coming home to Shelby where his whole life would be defined and everything was on the table, including murder. And I had to know why, what, how.
Paulzeye: When we first spoke, you mentioned that your dad had once managed a movie theatre in Montana. You told me, being a youngster celluloid “got in your blood” because of your dad. And you added, “I still feel like something’s off if I don’t see at least one movie a week.” So I must ask, what are some of your favorite films and some of your earliest film memories?
James Grady: One of my earliest film memories is a movie called THE LEGS DIAMOND STORY – I think that’s the title – starring Ray Danton. Pure sexy noir. I’d see four movies a week growing up, and am lucky now to live in a city with good theaters, including one that shows old movies. Favorites? Oh man: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, CASABLANCA, THE MALTESE FALCON, DR. STRANGELOVE, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE SEARCHERS, BULLITT, BLADE RUNNER, THE MATRIX, BREWSTER MCCLOUD, MCCABE & MRS. MILLER, GODFATHER I & II, GOODFELLAS, THE BEST YEARS OF THEIR LIVES, BONNIE & CLYDE, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, THE 400 BLOWS, EVEN THE RAIN, BLUE VELVET, CHINATOWN – I have to stop now and that list is so incomplete. And, of course, CONDOR.
Paulzeye: English author Brian Aldiss once claimed that, “There are two kinds of writer: those that make you think, and those that make you wonder.” Which of the two do you consider yourself to be?
James Grady: When I’m at my best, I make you wonder: emotion is stronger than intellect.
Paulzeye: Surely all writers must have limits in terms of their own writing or, for that matter, genre preferences. Taking that notion into consideration, what’s an example of a book you could never picture yourself writing? And why?
James Grady: It’s funny, before I turned 60, I would have said “anything like Updike” and now I have a story being published that someone at the magazine likened to Updike. I’ve written horror for the first time this year, too. Previously dabbled in science fiction and fantasy. I think the one thing I”ll never write, however, is the “academic novel” – some sort of story in which the characters are not confronted with major challenges but instead pontificate on “relationship questions” while they are insulated by suburbia or tenure.
Paulzeye: Do you have any other projects in development as we speak?
James Grady: There are a few “Hollywood” projects percolating, but there’s always more bubbles that come out of that process than coffee, so I only have hope, not optimism. What I’m most excited about is I’m in the middle of writing a Graham Greene like “spy” novel centered on Arab Spring but really encompassing everything from Americans in the streets of our own cities like New York and Washington to the politics of marriage – and all under the aim of violent guns. My working title is THE AMERICAN AGENT.
Paulzeye: The Internet has become something of a necessity today. And as time goes by, more and more people are demanding/choosing “online delivery” of content, be it news, movies, music, and books. That said, what in your opinion does the future of the print industry look like?
James Grady: E-books are not the future, they’re our present. I think for another decade, books will still be published in paper, though probably “print on demand” in stores and off our desktops, then after that, they’ll be curios and antiques and collectors items, coffee table art treasures. That just is. We as writers need to learn how to prevail in that reality.
Paulzeye: What advice would you offer to the many aspiring authors around the world who not only dream of becoming successful writers but being published as well?
James Grady: You wish it were all about the writing, but it’s not. Success other than what you feel for having finished some work of writing is dependent on forces that are not fully about your writing. Good writers get terrible breaks and vice-versa. So while you need to pay attention to marketing and opportunities, that kind of hustle is the least of what your life should be about. You’ve got to love what you’re writing. Otherwise, why should anyone else even like it? This is a never ending growth journey, and the day you stop getting better is the day you should stop, so keep fighting to be better. Other than that, get used to living life in one of the loneliest endeavors in the universe.
Paulzeye: James, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions today. It’s been a real pleasure and an honor.
James Grady: Thanks for asking, and for trying to keep the light shining on movies and fiction. The stories we tell and choose to hear define who we are, and it’s important to cast a critical eye on all of that.
Note: For information about author James Grady, you can visit his personal site at http://www.jamesgrady.net In addition, you can purchase Grady“s latest E-books online. They are available for download on iTunes, Amazon, B&N Nook, Google, and Kobo. Simply click on the following book title(s) to be taken directly to their download page: CONDOR.NET, SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THIS GIVEN SKY, and THE NATURE OF THE GAME.