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The Truth about Fiction

Long before there was John Wick there was Travis McGee.

Travis McGee was the brainchild of one of the most prolific and bestselling authors of all time, John D. MacDonald. Approximately 75 million MacDonald books have sold over the course of the last fifty years, and Stephen King referred to one of those books as the best book he ever read.

Travis McGee was a “salvage specialist” who lived on a houseboat in Florida and helped various people recover items of great value that had disappeared, or been stolen, or otherwise fallen out of their possession. He performed his duties not as charitable work but for a piece of the action, 50% to be precise.

Fine points of the law did not trouble McGee in the furtherance of his missions, and he was not a guy you wanted to meet in a dark alley in the middle of the night, unless he was working for you.

McGee’s sidekick, Meyer, was a world-class economist and shaman who offered moral and philosophical wisdom, which Travis felt no obligation to follow.

In the Travis McGee books, we see the world through Travis’s eyes and learn that his hard shell covers a compassionate soul tortured by the truth about the world in which he finds himself at the moment and which impinges on his consciousness, making his sometimes difficult choices even more challenging.

In other words, in Travis McGee we find a fictional character who represents all of us. We pull for him because we’re so much like him, or wish we were. He is flawed, yet bothered by his imperfections, a person who acts in order to free himself from his demons, only to find them again on the street corners of his next “salvage” job.

John D. MacDonald was a fascinating person in his right. He came home from his military service in WWII in the Pacific, told his wife he had decided to be a writer, and set himself in front of a typewriter and got to it.

Here’s what he said about what it takes to be a writer:

“Most beginners think that writing is a quick ticket to some kind of celebrity status, to broads and talk shows. Those with that shallow motivation can forget it. Here’s how it goes. Take a person 25 years old. If that person has not read a minimum of three books a week since he or she was ten years old, or 2,340 books-comic books not counted-and if he or she is not still reading at that pace or preferably at a greater pace, then forget it. If he or she is not willing to commit one million words to paper-ten medium-long novels-without much hope of ever selling one word, then forget it. And if he or she can be discouraged by anyone in this world from continuing to write, write, write-then forget it.”


This post is supposed to be about the truth of fiction. I have spent the last couple of months reading mostly non-fiction, but I found myself yearning for a dose of Travis McGee.

Why was that, you reckon? I suppose for me it is because in really great fiction we find a truer world that any “non-fiction” book can bring us. Non-fiction is limited to the tactile world of our research, of years spent in the archives. Fiction, however, is limited only by eternal human verities, the emotions that make us tick, the aspirations that drive us, the personalized memories we carry in our hearts.

And that is why I love a good story so much.

Don’t you?

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