CBC's Peter Gzowski interviews Leslie McFarlane
for This Country in the Morning, October 7, 1972.
00:00 Intv: Hi. Welcome. Today I am now going to interview Roy Rockwood, Carolyn Keene, James Cody Ferris, Burt L. Standish,—ah—Leslie McFarlane. I'm going to ask him for in fact they are all the same people—all the same person. His real name is Leslie McFarlane.
Do we really know that Mr. McFarlane, that that's your real name?
00:22 McF: My name never appeared over the books that I wrote—the juvenile books that I wrote—it appeared over several books which were published in Canada. But over the juvenile fiction the name never showed up. Because these are house names. They are owned by the Syndicate or the publishing house and they can be applied to works written by anyone of a hundred different people.
00:53 Intv: The one name I left out from that list of the pseudonyms who you have been from time to time in your long and distinguished career: Franklin W. Dixon, author of the Hardy Boys.
Let me ask you in that role, who were the Hardy Boys? What were they like?
01:09 McF: Well, while there was a certain resemblance between the two lads, chiefly in the firm yet good-humored expression of their mouths, in some respects they differed greatly in appearance. While Frank was dark with straight black hair and brown eyes, his brother was pink-cheeked with fair curly hair and blue eyes. Does that grab you?
01:32 Intv: How many young boys—of course we don't know it was only boys reading that entire series—I think there were probably—
01:40 McF: Many girls read them.
01:42 Intv: Girls read them. I bet you some parents snuck them there after dark too.
01:46 McF: I would imagine, even if they were only checking up to make sure the boys were engaged in reading very moral fiction. And of course the Hardy Boys were very moral.
01:55 Intv: And they were great detectives, too, son of the famous American—I should quiz you on some Hardy Boys trivia and see if you can remember—
02:00 McF: See if I can remember?
02:02 Intv: What was the father's name?
02:03 McF: Fenton Hardy, the great international detective.
02:06 Intv: Sleuth—
02:07 McF: Sleuth. Sleuth.
02:08 Intv: How come he could never solve anything without the Hardy—without his sons' help?
02:12 McF: No, it didn't work that way. Mr. Hardy was too busy solving cases on the international level—cases involving, let's say, the theft of the crown jewels of Slobovia or what have you. He was too busy doing that to get engaged in the cases which his sons would take over. And when a case was just a little below his level, and as long as it didn't involve bloodshed, he might turn it over to his sons and they would go to work on it.
02:42 Intv: What town did the Hardy's live in?
02:44 McF: They lived in the city of Bayport, which you will find in no map—no map of the Atlantic coast. It is vaguely somewhere between New York City and Florida. And there's a river runs into it. And there's a bay. And the Atlantic Ocean is out there, conveniently handy when the boys want to pursue rascals in motor boats and so forth and get involved in mysteries involved in shipping such as The Phantom Freighter. And then there's some hills in the background and there can be haunted houses and derelict buildings where the boys can get into adventures with different degrees of—oh, shall we say "mayhem"?
03:37 Intv: And what was the favorite form of transportation of the Hardy Boys?
03:40 McF: Their favorite form of transportation was, in the first place, by motorcycle. And then with the reward money from the first mysteries they solved they were able to buy a motor boat named The Sleuth, and then they were able to buy a car. And for all I know, they're probably graduated into aircraft of all kinds since then but I haven't looked at a Hardy Boys for some time.
04:06 Intv: Did you, in fact, invent the Hardy Boys?
04:08 McF: No. I've been credited with the authorship complete and this isn't the way this sort of fiction works. The Hardy Boys—the Hardy Boys series—is one of a series produced by a Syndicate, called the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was founded by Edward Stratemeyer who was the successor to Horatio Alger, first of the great boys' books authors of the 1800s. And Stratemeyer found that it was much easier for him to write just the plots of stories and then farm these plots out to writers than to go on writing the entire volumes himself. And this was how he wound up being the founder or original author or plot writer or what have you of something like eight hundred volumes.
05:15 Intv: But he would dash out the rough plot and then say over to you Leslie McFarlane—
05:19 McF: That's right. This is the way this operation works. If you read one of these plots on the two sheets of paper, it would be pretty flat. And it has to be filled in. It has to be given characterization of some kind. It has to be given dialogue and it has to be given pace and it has to be given what an author can put into it.
The Hardy Boys series was founded by Stratemeyer and handed to me as an assignment and I did the first three volumes. Once again, this is how this sort of operation works. You don't just publish one book in a new series; you do three books. All three books are published simultaneously. It's sort of a scatter-gun effect. So then if the readers buy it, if the readers go along with it, if they like one they'll buy the other two because every book refers to the other two books. If the breeders breed properly and sell well, then you go on to a fourth and a fifth—
06:22 Intv: But you start with three, it's not like writing My Friend Flicka and then later on writing Son of—
06:27 McF: Oh, no. This is very deliberately designed that you do three and you are given sort of a digest—the boys live in the city of Bayport on Barmet Bay and they go to school—apparently—but we don't bother too much about this. I can recall I think in only one book ever allowing the Hardy Boys to be even caught at school.
06:52 Intv: Well, they were so busy; they had to solve all those crimes.
06:54 McF: Everything happened on the weekends or on some holidays, you know.
06:59 Intv: Come to think of it, they had a continual summer holiday going.
How long did it take you to write one Hardy Boys book?
07:06 McF: Oh, you could do them pretty rapidly. I did one, locked up in a Toronto office, one day back in—let's see what was it—1929. I was broke and trying to get out of town. And, I had a wife and small baby to look after. And Joe McDoughal, who was editor of Goblin Magazine at that time said "we have a spare office and if you want a typewriter and you want a place to work you can have it. So, I locked myself up in this office for about five days and hammered out a Hardy Boys book. Joe used to bring friends around to look through the window at me.
07:48 Intv: Point and "See there's a man typing."
07:49 McF: There's a man writing a book.
07:50 Intv: How much money would you get for it? Surely it would be a flat fee.
07:54 McF: Flat fee. A hundred and twenty-five bucks.
07:56 Intv: A hundred and twenty-five bucks for a Hardy Boys book?
07:58 McF: That's right. If it took a week to write, that was a hundred and twenty-five dollars a week—very good money during the Depression, you know.
08:04 Intv: Have you ever stopped to think what they might be worth if you had the copyright?
08:08 McF: I have stopped to figure. The Hardy Boys—I understand the ones I wrote—have now sold something like twenty-five million copies. The used to sell at seventy-five cents and then that went up to a dollar and then a dollar and a quarter. I think they're now a dollar and a half. And, yes the royalty of even a quarter of one percent would have been all right. But this again is how this operates. None of these people ever pay royalties. It's always flat rate.
08:37 Intv: You're talking in the present tense. Are Hardy Boys books still coming out?
08:40 McF: Oh, yes. They're still being published.
08:42 Intv: But they're all different. They must have a different vocabulary.
08:45 McF: They've all been rewritten. The boys in the old days used to drive a roadster. Well now it's a convertible, and so on. Also the pacing is different. The old books were rather leisurely in pace and traveled along a little more slowly than a modern book should travel. So they've all been rewritten, tightened from say fifty thousand words to around thirty-five.
09:10 Intv: Do they put in any violence?
09:12 McF: No, no. They didn't change in that respect at all. It's a nonviolent generation so far as the Hardy Boys is concerned.
09:20 Intv: You wrote four books about the Dana Girls.
09:23 McF: Oh, this was an assignment that came some time during the thirties when they decided to set up a girls' series rather similar to the Hardy Boys. These would be girls, two sisters, who solved mysteries. Now, Nancy Drew was the great star for the girl audience. One girl solving mysteries. If one girl is good, why not two girls? So they began the Dana Girls series and I was asked to get that series off the ground by writing the three breeders which started the Dana Girls. I think I wrote four or five, I can't recall but after a while I begged off. I just wasn't at home writing about the Dana Girls.
10:11 Intv: The girl detective books were for a girl audience while the boy books were for—
10:16 McF: More or less. The girls went to boarding school and it's a rather limited area in which to find enthralling mysteries.
10:21 Intv: They have to be home for lights out.
10:23 McF: That's right.
10:25 Intv: You also wrote some of the Dave Fearless books?
10:27 McF: Oh, I began with Dave Fearless. This was a great thrill when I began this series. I began writing for Stratemeyer, believe it or not, in answer to an ad: "Experienced Fiction Writer Wanted to Work from Prepared Outlines."
Well this was the first time in my life I had ever seen an ad for a fiction writer so I answered the ad and along came a reply from Mr. Stratemeyer and I didn't realize this was the great Edward Stratemeyer, author of the Rover Boys—a fabulous man. So, he said he would send me a couple of paperback books. Would I be good enough to look at them and let him know if I cared to try my hand at a similar kind of book. One of the books from a series called the Nat Ridley Detective series and the other was from the Dave Fearless series by Roy Rockwood.
Well now, among boys Roy Rockwood was a name to conjure with because Roy Rockwood was the author of Bomba the Jungle Boy. And of course this was the descendant of Tarzan of the Apes. So I thought it would be quite an honor to become Roy Rockwood, author of Bomba the Jungle Boy. So I became Dave Fearless and began writing these Dave Fearless books.
11:54 Intv: Dave Fearless was kind of an early Lloyd Bridges, wasn't he?
11:57 McF: He was was a diver, yeah, a deep-sea diver. He and his good friend Bob Vilette went around the world searching sunken wrecks for treasure and getting involved in all sorts of things—undersea adventures. Some of them were really wild—wild and wonderful. I think the first one—I batted this out in a week and sent it on to Stratemeyer and he allowed it was a pretty fair book and would I write another one? It went on from there.
12:29 Intv: Out of all of that, those years and years and words and words, you must be Canada's best-selling author? Or would Mazo de la Roche be ahead of you? Have you ever thought about that?
12:36 McF: Well I understand the Hardy Boys are the biggest in terms of volumes sold. Of course I don't regard myself as the author in that sense. You know I would never claim in a hundred years to being Canada's best-selling author. This would be ridiculous.
Do you know this is part of a pretty big industry that at one time the books put out by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Grosset & Dunlap and the associate publishers around them, outsold all adult books in North America?
13:14 Intv: Are you ever going to write a book about writing the Hardy Boy books and all those other books?
13:18 McF: I've been working on something of that kind. I did complete a manuscript and I'm in the process of revising it and rewriting it now because I don't think this should be one about Leslie McFarlane particularly. It should be about juvenile books in general and how they were written, the evolution of the juvenile book, where it began, and so forth, the differences between the juveniles written in England and on this continent for example were quite enormous. And I find this rather interesting to study this field and do some rereading there.
13:59 Intv: Let me just test you just a—I gave you a small trivia quiz about the Hardy Boys. This is a book you wrote. The Hardy Boys The Shore Road Mystery. It begins,
"It certainly is a mystery how those autos disappeared," said Frank Hardy.
"I'll say it is," replied his brother Joe, raising his voice to be heard above the clatter of their motorcycles. "Just think of it, two cars last week, two the week before, and one the week before that. Some thieving, I'll tell the world."
Now, Leslie McFarlane, alias Franklin W. Dixon, and author of the opening of that book, who committed the crime?
14:33 McF: I haven't the foggiest idea and I don't really care. I have no idea what happened.
14:40 Intv: It's fascinating to be able to look back on it. I hope you do do a book on juvenile fiction and I'd love to talk to you about it.