McMillan is the lone wolf behind Dennis McMillan Publications, specializing in noir and hard-boiled limited editions since 1983.
Publishers Weekly: Why does Measures of Poison remind me of Hank Williams Jr. singing about all his rowdy friends?
Dennis McMillan: Because these writers are my friends, pretty good friends, at that. I wanted to involve them in a celebration—that I had made it to 20 years as a publisher. I invited all my friends who wanted to be in it, some kicking and screaming like James Crumley, because he hates to write. He's like Fredric Brown—he hates to write, but he loves having written.
PW: How does it feel, reaching the 20-year mark?
DM: I usually only think about six months in advance. There's something really different about making 20 years: you feel as if you're more or less in it to stay. If you've survived two decades of something, you can probably keep doing it. Fortunately for me, the growth of the specialty mystery bookstore happened about the same time, or slightly before, I started publishing books, so I've always been able to reach my audience. I feel akin to Taschen, out of Germany, because of their motto, We don't follow fads, we create them.
PW: When did you get the idea for this book?
DM: Not that long ago. In November 2000, at the noir conference that Club Med put on in the Bahamas. I got to thinking, they put on this thing solely because their CEO likes noir fiction, but they have no audience for this, the only attendees were writers, critics and a few oddballs like me—most other publishers were from France. That's where the idea came to me, that I should do a 20th-anniversary book, since I have an audience. I didn't think once about doing a 10th anniversary book!
PW: Do you consider this extra-large book as something of a gift to your steady readership?
DM: I would like it to be that, plus a way to turn on the occasional buyers of my books, who might only have bought the Michael Connelly limited editions I've done, because he's the only writer they know about that I publish. Or they bought Fredric Brown titles back in the '80s when I was doing those, and haven't bought anything recently. This book is a sampler of the writers I publish, showing how good they are. If you like one of them, you're going to like all of them, pretty much. A lot of people don't seem to understand that my taste is consistent, and they won't be disappointed in the quality of anything I publish.
PW: What was your vision for this book?
DM: I wanted to do something that I have a personal interest in, which is hard-boiled pulp fiction, and have modern writers work in what they consider that style, give them a challenge, but also something that would be fun for them to do. I thought they would enjoy taking a crack at writing a story set in the '20s or '30s or '40s, in that style. Fifteen of the 25 stories are set in the pulp period. I drew largely on writers I've published or plan on publishing in the next year or so, and Joe Servello did a lot of illustrations. Michael Kellner did a really cool design, making the book look like an old medicine bottle.
PW: Any plans for a trade reprint once your limited edition sells out?
DM: I've been contacted by Little Brown and Ballantine for possible reprint, so there is interest in New York. I don't know if it'll be in hardcover or trade paperback.
PW: Where'd you get the title?
DM: From something Charles Willeford wrote, "Without his measure of poison, any man will flatly refuse his invitation to dance." I truly believe that. The various arts allow people to transmogrify what they know about their tortured existences and feel better—those are the "measures of poison" a person needs to live in a semi-happy state; or at least not in constant despair. That's the purpose of art, and that's what these stories do.