Monday, March 25, 2019

Russell Davis - The Ghost behind the Books: A Paperback Warrior Unmasking

It all began with a haircut.

I was waiting my turn at the barbershop reading a 1970s vigilante paperback, and the guy sitting next to me said, “Have you ever heard of a series of novels called The Executioner about a guy named Mack Bolan?”

I told him that I was very familiar with the series and regarded myself as a fan. In fact, I write for a wildly-popular blog covering vintage men’s fiction.

Then the guy said, “I wrote many of them. And lots of other books like that, too.”

He introduced himself as Russell Davis, a name I confess I didn’t know. It turns out that his anonymity as an author of genre fiction was no accident, and my investigation into his body of work uncovered some interesting business practices among house name authors. His story illuminates the difficulty in unmasking the real authors behind the legendary pseudonyms of men’s adventure fiction.

I checked the guy out with some writers and editors in the genre, and Davis’ claims checked out. He was the real deal. We met for coffee, and I heard his story.

His first sale was a science fiction short story in a 1998 anthology edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg called “The UFO Files.” The story was published under Davis’ real name.. “I received a letter from a guy in prison who read my UFO story. The guy’s letter was rambling, but the theme – as far as I could tell – was that the creatures we perceive as aliens from outer space are actually angels sent by God. I had young kids at the time and felt increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of unbalanced readers posing a threat to my family, so I opted for pseudonyms wherever feasible going forward. Most of my short fiction has been under my name, though not all of it, and all but a few of the novels I’ve written have been under various pseudonyms.”

His first novel sale came in 2001 as co-author of “Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers #17: Cloak and Dagger,” and the success of that book opened new doors for Davis in the world of house-name fiction. “My mom met Tom Clancy before he died and told him that her son wrote one of his books,” Davis said. “Needless to say, Mr. Clancy was not amused.”

For Davis, 2008 was a big year for his writing career as a professional ghost. He sold two novels in Gold Eagle’s ‘Room 59’ spy series published under the house name Cliff Ryder. Gold Eagle, a Harlequin imprint, had always been generous with giving the real authors a writing credit on the copyright page. But having learned his lesson from his prison fan mail experience a decade earlier, Davis opted to have the writing credit go to a pseudonym he created to hide beneath the house name. “I began using the names Garrett Dylan and Dylan Garrett for the house name books I wrote to preserve my anonymity,” he said.

At the barbershop, Davis told me that he wrote two adult Western novels in ‘The Trailsman’ series as Jon Shape, but I was unable to find any record that this was true. Weeks later at coffee, I asked him about this, and he let me in on an industry secret. “Ed Gorman was contracted to write two books in The Trailsman series, but he was swamped with work at the time,” he said. “Ed called me and asked if I’d be willing to write the books for him in exchange for $2,000 per novel. Ed was probably making $4,000 per book for the job, so it was a win-win. I asked him if he’d created plot outlines, and he said he’d sold them on the basis of the titles alone – ‘Louisiana Laydown’ and ‘California Crackdown’ - so I had to write them with no guidance other than the titles. I finished the books quickly, and the publisher was never the wiser. Subcontracting your house-name work to other ghostwriters for a reduced fee was a common practice, but it was rarely discussed in public.”

Davis’ ability to write fast, high-quality genre fiction landed him an opportunity to work on the legendary Don Pendleton series, ‘The Executioner.’ “I was a fan of the series from way back, but I hadn’t read one in years,” he said. “The editor sent over a box of recent Bolans, so I could get a feel for the current format, and I got to work on my first one.” His initial outing was published in 2009 as “The Executioner #371: Fire Zone,” and the going rate for a Pendleton ghost at the time was a flat $4,000 fee per book. “I can only assume that the more seasoned and popular authors of the series – like Michael Newton or Mel Odom – commanded a higher fee,” Davis said. The success of his first venture lead Davis to author a total of eight installments of ‘The Executioner’ series as well as double-sized ‘Super-Bolan’ paperback.

Gold Eagle worked hard to maintain a continuity in the Mack Bolan universe. When Davis wrote a scene in ‘Super Bolan #148: Decision Point’ (March 2012) that found Mack flying an airplane, he quickly heard from an editor at Gold Eagle. “Mack can’t fly a plane,” the editor said, and this was news to the author. “I told her that he could fly a helicopter,” he said. “Why not a plane? She replied that it was in the Bolan bible. The problem was I had never been provided the document telling me what Mack could and couldn’t do. I’d learned on-the-job by reading books in the series. Despite my argument, rules are rules, and the airplane scene was cut.”

In keeping with his low-profile approach, Davis’ work on the Mack Bolan brand was credited to either Dylan Garrett or Garrett Dylan on the copyright pages. “And then for one book, Gold Eagle screwed up and gave me credit under my real name,” he said. “The moderator of the Mack Bolan fan website somehow put it all together and sent me an email asking if I had written all the Dylan Garrett titles in the series. I told the truth, and he amended his website crediting me for the books I wrote. Basically, I was outed.”

Davis has also worked on media tie-in novels connected to The Transformers, The Librarian, and The Twilight Zone. He’s also been active in the science fiction writing community, and is a former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). These days he spends his time working on screenplays and as a university professor at a Master of Fine Arts Program for Genre Fiction. “If you want a master’s degree in how to write paranormal vampire romances, I guess I’m your guy,” he said. “I’m also going to be back writing original novels soon, and there are some announcements coming very soon on that front.”

In any case, Davis’ days as a ghost writer for media tie-in books are likely over. “I enjoyed the work while I was doing it, and it was a good way to make some money. But there’s only so many hours in the day I can spend writing, and the idea of doing my own thing with screenplays and original novels is ultimately more fulfilling from an artistic standpoint.”

Selected Men’s Adventure Bibliography of Russell Davis

‘Net Force Explorers’ as Tom Clancy:
- #17: “Cloak and Dagger” (2001)

‘The Trailsman’ as Jon Sharpe:
- #319: “Louisiana Laydown” (2008)
- #324: “California Crackdown” (2008)

‘Room 59’ as Cliff Ryder
- #2: “Out of Time” (2008)
- #4: “The Ties That Bind” (2008)

‘The Executioner’ as Don Pendleton
- #371: “Fire Zone” (2009)
- #392: “Shadow Hunt” (2011)
- #395: “Hazard Zone” (2011)
- #405: “Lethal Diversion” (2012)
- #415:  “Ivory Wave” (2013)
- #416:  “Extraction” (2013)
- #428:  “Desert Impact” (2014)
- #436:  “Perilous Cargo” (2015)

‘Super Bolan’ as Don Pendleton
- #148: ‘Decision Point” (2012)

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