An Interview with George Snyder, author of Operation Hang Ten.
Operation Hang Ten is undoubtedly one of the most offbeat, counter-culture spy series ever written, and the man behind the Patrick Morgan pen name was George Snyder. Snyder is still at work today, writing tough hard-boiled noir novels under his own name, but there was a time when counter culture espionage novels were his bread and butter.
George has kindly consented to answer some questions about this fertile period in his writing career. So, step into a time machine and go back to the late '60s and early '70s and talk about woodies, topless discotheques, and enemies of the free world.
Q: Firstly, how old were you when you wrote your first Operation Hang Ten book?
GS: Twenty-six. At twenty-four, married with a couple young kids, we just bought our house. I’d been hitting the men’s short-story market, selling fifty to sixty percent of the stories I wrote and the editor of Best for Men, who had contact with a Las Vegas paperback publisher suggested I try writing something longer. I wrote a surfer novel that got me hooked with the Nick Carter books that led to the Hang Ten series.
Q: Where did the idea for Operation Hang Ten come from?
GS: The original title of my surfer book was, The Surfer Killers a mystery about a surfer who gets his woody stolen and that involves him in the gang run by his girlfriend’s father. (Long out of print). Neva Paperbacks paid a $500 advance and brought it out as Surfside Sex. I never made another nickel on it.
A New York publisher, I think Merit or McFadden-Bartell was bringing out a paperback series based on the old thirties, Smith and Street Publication private eye, Nick Carter, but making him an American James Bond. The books eventually were assigned by country to different writers and handled by a New York huckster named Lyle Kenyon Engel. In the beginning there was just him and me. He put out a call to writers but where he eliminated most, he required they already have a book published on their own. I bundled up my little Surfside Sex and sent it off. I got a call from the publisher saying they loved my surfer book and when could I start?
My first Nick Carter was The Defector, which went into four printings and was translated into French and Japanese. Once the publisher approved the first three chapters and outline, I was off and running with six weeks to finish the 60,000 word book. These were the days before computers, with carbon paper and clackety typing, banging away on a manual typewriter that my neighbor said sounded like a machine gun going off. A Sears Tower Portable lasted about a year (the L went first). When I was heavy into the Nick Carter series, now divorced to never remarry (one marriage per lifetime is plenty) and travelling around, I wrote car racing articles for several magazines Lyle operated besides his deal with the Nick Carter publisher.
Lyle asked me to do something with my surfer book, maybe make the guy a spy, dead parents leaving him rich, lots of contact with Chinese communists (popular bad guys at the time). If he got publisher approval, my advance would be $1,500 a book for as many as I could write, same deal, 60,000 words in six weeks. Unlike now, in those days even small publishers gave some kind of up-front money. He chose the writer name, Patrick Morgan. I fought against Cartwright (sounded like Bonanza) but lost. Another thing I almost lost to the publisher was titles. They had the first title; Too Mini Murders that I thought was dumb. The others I suggested they thought were too long: Hang Dead Hawaiian Style, Cute and Deadly Surf Twins, etc. but I dug in and fought it out and won. Although written first, Too Mini Murders was released after Hang Dead Hawaiian Style, which was also translated into Japanese and French. I titled all the other books I wrote, until other writers came in later. I owned no rights to either series.
The publisher also wanted more computer stuff, more than temperature and drink mixes and rotating bed. I fought that too because I didn’t want to get bogged down in technology with a lot of tech-babble I really didn’t know. These books were to be fun romps, lots of sex with happy girls who liked giving themselves to my cool guy, and vicious villainous Chi-Com bad guys. At the time I lived in a singles-only apartment complex and was the resident bartender Friday and Saturday nights. Often tough getting out those 10 finished pages every day, five days a week. The world was filled with free-thinking long-haired, hippy-type beautiful girls who sometimes smelled good and were eager for liberation and experience.
Another conflict came when women took over publisher reader and editing jobs. I got notes that the books were too sexist and maybe we should tone it down by giving Bill a girl-match for some of his twisted ideas. I pointed out the covers (some of the greatest in book publishing) and told them to just look at that guy. What healthy bikini-clad, deep breathing, swivel-hipped surfer gal wouldn’t get her thighs quivering to get some of that. The guy was a cool good-looking stud. The sexist street ran both ways. It didn’t quiet the editors, and although I won battles, I was slowly losing the war. They also wanted me to tone down what they called snippets of philosophy the books carried. I didn’t get that one.
I gave Bill the trailer, checked to learn Flying Tigers Airline could cargo lift the trailer anywhere in the world, and had Bill operate in a surfing triangle between Australia, Mexico and Southern California. I had him working for Operation Hang Ten. After the first year, the publisher brought in other writers with other, more acceptable titles.
Today I consider the series juvenile and badly written when compared to what I write now. They were published pretty much as they peeled out of the typewriter, other than light proof, no real editing or polish. And to me, they read like it. But I still meet people who loved them and are sorry I stopped writing the series.
Q: Were the Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello's Beach Party films an influence at all? Similarly, the other big beach films of the era featured Elvis Presley. If any, did Presley's 'Rock-a-hula' Hawaiian films have an impact on the series? I notice the first in the series, Hang Dead Hawaiian Style borrows its title from Presley's Paradise Hawaiian Style.
GS: Never cared for the Beach Blanket Bimbo flicks. We thought Frankie was already doing Annette anyway so what was the point of the celluloid chase? I didn’t see Paradise Hawaiian Style, it’s more likely the Elvis producers borrowed the title from the Hang Ten books. I like some of Elvis’s music, never cared for his movies. Other than body surfing, my contact with the surf crowd was mainly through observation. I hung out in Manhattan and Redondo Beach, did some of the night spots, mostly looked at the mouth watering scenery. Movies were not an influence.
Q: Did the counter culture themes, such as not working for the establishment and being your own man/or woman come from you? Or did the publisher shoe horn these elements into the story to appeal to a youth market?
GS: When I turned thirty, divorced, living in Newport Beach, California, I was part of a youngish culture; I sailed to Catalina Island for Scuba and parties. The Newport Beach South Bay Club Singles-Only complex had enough partying for a lifetime. I body-surfed the California coast but preferred diving, the diving community itself partied hard and hearty. I had no job to go to, for several years I lived on my writing. Gorgeous women were friendly, the scotch flowed easy and every night was either Friday or Saturday (except when I was writing). I did uppers and downers and smoked a ton of pot. There was little the publisher could add to that kind of lifestyle. I felt they were a stuffy East Coast bunch anyway. It went three years until I moved out, much of that time weekends were a blur.
Q: What market were the books aimed at? Were they written for the surfing crowd? Or were they simply an alternative to the staid authoritarian tone prevalent in other spy fiction of the era?
GS: I have no idea. We writers of that time just cared about cranking the books out. Marketing was left to others. Not like today when the writer has to do it all. Surfers I’ve talked to liked the books. Tavern drinking buddies who read them still think they were the wildest, raunchiest stuff I ever wrote. The James Bond types weren’t too interested. There were many spy paperbacks out at the time, and PIs like Shell Scott and Travis McGee; books by Donald Hamilton, Don Pendleton; Mack Bolan were out there. The field became crowded. The Hang Ten books were loudly laughed at by the literary crowd, as were the Nick Carters.
Real-life surfers at the time were likely too busy with each other to do much reading.
Q: The series presents the perfect, dare I say it, 'hippy' lifestyle – Cartwright is a character who follows the sun and the surf around the globe. How much of yourself is in the character of Bill Cartwright? Were you a counter-culture rebel? Do you surf?
GS: At the time I body surfed, seldom got on a board. Again, at the time, the Cartwright acted and thought a lot as I did. I’ve always had a healthy disregard for what others say and think, specifically about my writing, because opinions are so subjective. The example being fighting with publishers; writers don’t fight with publishers, who are, God. Yet even today when I know how I want something in my book, I’ll fight for it. I have always written what I like. If others like it enough to spend money so they can read it, I’m happy. But I don’t write what I think will be popular or jump on the back of the latest trend, probably why I’ve never made a lot of money with my books.
My lifestyle was established then. Now, I live aboard a small sailboat. I’ve solo-sailed Puget Sound to Alaska and spent a year solo cruising Mexico, where I wrote screenplays that went nowhere. But I did trim the fat from what I wrote. I’ve motorcycle toured more than 250,000 miles through five western states, Canada and Mexico. Have Scuba-dived the California coast, Puget Sound, the Texas gulf, the Gulf of Thailand, the Sea of Cortez, the Florida Keys. I took three months to camp-tour in my Honda Civic around the US living in a one-man tent. I’ve traveled the Far East and still intend to finish up the rest of the world. In travel, I’m not fond of two-week or packaged tours. I go at it several months or more with no set itinerary. I’ve published 45 books -- the last five hardboiled crime noir novels in the past two years.
I’m not sure how ordinary all this is.
Q: In the late sixties, one character cast a large shadow over all spy fiction, and that was James Bond. What traits did you take from Ian Fleming's famous creation? And what did you deliberately leave out?
GS: Too many people confuse James Bond the movies with James Bond the novels. Ian Fleming made a comfortable living writing his early books. As a former British agent, his schedule was to fly to Bermuda in January, take three months to write a James Bond novel, then back to England for his one-year comfortable life after it was published, then do it again the next year. The novels were good spy stuff, though a little dry for me. Then one day a reporter asked President John F. Kennedy who his favorite literary detective was. He said, James Bond. That put an end to Fleming’s comfortable lifestyle; he instantly rolled in wealth with unbelievable movies showing a fantasy world loosely based on his novels.
I didn’t care for the first Bond movie because it bore little resemblance to Bond. But in time and after umpteen films, I’ve accepted that there are two platforms. There are the Bond movies, unrealistic and mainly action entertainment. And there are the long gone Bond novels, now imitation-written by others. The novels gave us up-to-date technology in spyware while the films give us gadgets.
Nick Carter was supposed to be an American James Bond. I always considered his books just spy entertainment. Federal penitentiary prisoners love them. I wrote several of the almost 200 titles out there having sold millions of copies. Nick Carter books are closer to Bond than Hang Ten. Where Bond was slick in his philosophy, Cartwright was blue-collar; instead of brilliant deduction he used dogged determination; he moved along the fast food, beach shack, beach babes, burger and beers trail; he liked his scotch but he’d never say, “stirred, not shaken.” Nick Carter might.
Even today, I tend to write blue-collar guys because that’s how I am.
Q: Operation Hang Ten was not the only series you were writing at the time. You were also working on the Nick Carter: Killmaster series. Was it hard to juggle the two series?
GS: I was dealing with two opposite personalities. The well-dressed calculating Nick Carter and the burger and babe, rich surf bum, Bill Cartwright (I still hate that name; my original name was Cody Falcon but no dice, sounded too much like a bird) Where I took my time was in putting together the first three chapters and outline. My outlines sometimes ran 25-30 pages. I wanted that to be my main labor, the hardest part, so I could buzz through writing the novel in the required six weeks. Once the publisher approved the three-chapters-and-outline (and I had half the advance), the gun was to my head and I had to hit the deck running. Maybe that wasn’t such a big deal. These days they have a contest to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, and I guess several enter. It isn’t anything I’d ever be interested in.
I alternated between Hang Ten and Nick Carter. This was the early seventies, crap was going on in Vietnam, the government we had was more corrupt than those previous – or at least we knew more about it. Everybody had a bitch about something: the war, no gas, the race card, immigration, burning bras, a free love fantasy (it’s never free), communes, back-to-the-land—mostly, folks did a lot of whining and demonstrating, made noise.
Besides writing those two series, I still occasionally knocked off a short story, and wrote some sailing articles, I’d gotten heavy into sailing and intended to go around the world (who didn’t?). I bugged Lyle and the publishers, I wanted my own series guy in my own name controlled solely by me. All they replied, more books, give us more books. While I enjoyed the lifestyle the books paid, I’d grown weary of the battles. What editors wanted was woman empowerment and they wanted at least traces of that in every book published. As mentioned, I knew I was losing the war. I was ready for change.
Q: What would you say were the main differences between Bill Cartwright and Nick Carter?
GS: Nick Carter was closer to James Bond, closer in attitude, working style, gathering clues and how he handled action. I think of Bond and Carter I think sophistication. When I think of Hang Ten, I think beach or alley fight. It’s like Nick Carter worked at being James Bond, the agent life most important. Bill Cartwright lived his life, enjoyed the surf girls, travel, parties…and was also a reluctant agent. He didn’t need the money; he did it for the action.
Q: Is there a place for either Carter or Cartwright in today's world?
GS: With editing dominated by women, probably not. The books are sexist. It would be difficult to use them for woman empowerment without losing their masculine zing. Men actually did read those books. I’d say three-quarters of my tavern buddies haven’t held a book in decades. While many books today are being published and read, especially now with digital and independent publishing, they all must satisfy current attitudes about the role of women in them. The blatant sexism of sixties and seventies paperbacks would be unacceptable. There are a few independents who defy custom—editors won’t accept what they write so they won’t write what editors accept. In queries, when I suggest my novels are similar to Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, John D. MacDonald, Richard Prather and some Lawrence Block, the claws come out and I’m informed those writers are immediately dismissed because of how they treated women in their books. Popular, modern writers like Dennis Lehane and Lee Child make sure the women in their books reflect standards set to show women equal men in every way. Even James Bond, the movies, has succumbed. Within the writing world, gentlemen, the ladies have us outnumbered so we give in or perish. The old attitudes will not swim today. I’m not saying it’s good or bad; certainly women like the improvement. I’m just saying, it’s different these days. It is often militant out there in the publishing world today.
Q: A major part of the counter culture movement was, of course, the sexual revolution, and spy books written at that time really cranked up the sexual shenanigans of their heroes – and heroines for that matter. This is even more apparent in the Nick Carter novels than the Hang Ten series. Nick certainly loved the ladies. Although, possibly considered tame by today's standard, were you comfortable with writing the sex scenes? Was a high sexual content a prerequisite when writing in that era, and for that market?
GS: Here’s the thing about sex scenes. In the sixties and seventies and through the mid-eighties, paperback publishers required three sex scenes in every book; one toward the beginning, one in the middle, one toward the end. It was a rule writers fought because the scene often had little or nothing to do with the story. The loudest critic of the practice was John D. MacDonald because even lofty Fawcett Publications carried the silly rule.
In the scene, no intimate body part could be described, nothing about how it felt, or juices, or tightness, or the actual act itself; no grunts, groans, squeals; words like “harder” or “faster”, or “Oh My God!” or “Here it comes!” The scene was supposed to be like syrupy movies when the camera shows fluttering curtains or bird-tweeting while the couple—out of sight-- humped each other like the plane was going down, on the bed, or table or couch, or car seat, or phone booth, or hanging from a chandelier. The act was supposed to be about lovemaking not fucking, nothing clinical.
I had no heartburn writing those scenes. At the time I was getting more sex than I ever wrote about, more than at any time in my life, including when I was married. It was easy to recall one of my personal events and write it, toning down the description.
Editors didn’t complain about my sex scenes, though they did send a Nick Carter manuscript back because my middle sex scene had been too light. Whatever the hell that meant. I jazzed it up but they ended up toning it back down a little.
These days I don’t write sex scenes, I write sensuous innuendo, more about the build-up than the clinical act. Dialog is a wonderful invention for that. A man and a woman can get the reader breathing heavy before touching each other.
Q: Your output at the time was rather prodigious, releasing by my count, eight books in 1970, and six in 1971. Were there other projects that you were working on besides the two spy series?
GS: (Grant Fowler series?) I had little to do with the Grant Fowler series. I cleaned up one book in terrible shape but I was still working to get my own guy out there. During some evenings I did write a science-fiction novel about the war between men and women. It was eventually published thirty years later as Beyond Gender Wars after very heavy editing. I now have the rights again and have revised it back closer to the original, then released the revised edition. Not all editors are good editors.
My character finally did emerge, Bay Rumble, a guy sailing the world on his self-designed, self built catamaran where he runs into murder and treachery. The fourth novel in the series, Baja Bullets, is released, with #5 Deadly Doubloons in outline form. The other three books are available through my Amazon site: www.amazon.com/author/georgesnydernet One area that may need clarification: In the old days, my writing day started at 6am, Monday through Friday, going after the ten pages a day, however long it took. I didn’t do any screwing around until Friday afternoon. While writing I was serious as a Monk. I wrote on a punishment/reward basis. Typing away, I allowed myself all the coffee I could drink but I could not eat anything until the ten finished pages were complete. It sometimes made for a long hungry day. During that block of time, I slammed the door on visitors and disconnected the phone, and shouted for people to stop bothering me and get lost, no doubt grumpy because I couldn’t eat. Women and friends who knew me and liked what they knew respected that. I didn’t care about anyone else. I usually had my ten pages around Noon or One. Then I was free to hug the girls and raise hell. But like Hemingway, I got to bed long before midnight because the work waited for me at six. Weekends, I went a little apeshit.
When I moved out of the singles apartment complex (they started letting married couples in then couples with kids and dogs) and stopped writing the Hang Ten books, my life slowed. While I traveled there was less food, drink and making Mary. Over time, I stopped smoking and drinking and gave up the happy smoke. Years later I eased back to occasional beers and Captain Morgan Spiced Rum and an occasional scotch. I never went back to dope.
I’ve always continued to write. My guy Bay has been joined by two others: Logan Sand, an ex-fighter Northwest private eye with four books written. Next is Hard Trouble. And my newest creation, a tough PI gal out in the desert who lives in the fictional town of Branch Lake just north of Lake Havasu, Arizona. At a writers convention, agents (all women) said what the world needs are more tough gal PIs that are not man-written guys with a bra. I recall many realistic women characters written by men: Madame Bovary; Of Human Bondage; Memoirs of a Geisha, written first-person by a man. James M. Cain gave us Mildred Pierce. Even Robert B. Parker gave us Sunny Randall. At long last, I have my empowered woman. My gal is Makayla “Mac” Tuff and she’s tougher than her last name. I’d created Mac before agents started making noise and already wrote a piece about her before the convention. One difference about Mac, she not only understands men but actually likes the way they act and think. I’m writing the fifth book in the series now—Easy Shot.
Every now and then I get contacted about the old Hang Ten series. I think I’m the only one alive who was connected to it. Those were happy writing days and happy living days. I’m kind of old and beat-up now and not of much significance. Sometimes I still attract a good-looking woman but women don’t smile at me like they used to. I still enjoy their intimate company and how they look. I only wish they moved a little slower when they pass by me. I still travel and backpack and sail and ride my motorcycle…and write.
My books are available: www.amazon.com/author/georgesnydernet
George, thank you for your time, and sharing your recollections and thoughts on a truly fascinating era in spy fiction.