Six Bad Things
by Charlie Huston
Published by Ballantine Books
320 pages, 2005
by Charlie Huston
Published by Del Rey
288 pages, 2005
Charlie Huston sits down across from me in a Manhattan diner, looking tired. But then, that's to be expected, considering how busy this 38-year-old author has been lately. After arriving on the crime-fiction scene in 2004, he's attacked his career like a triathlete training for world competition. He recently completed his trilogy of novels about Henry "Hank" Thompson, a trouble-prone former minor-league baseball player, with the third and final installment, A Dangerous Man, due out in September 2006; he's already submitted to his publisher the second entry in his Joe Pitt vampire private-eye series (following Pitt's successful introduction in last year's Already Dead); he is currently composing a standalone thriller set in modern California; and he recently scripted the first issue of the resurrected Marvel comic-book series Moon Knight, which has been slated to run at least 12 issues long. Yet, he still found time to get together for a series of talks necessary to produce this January Magazine interview, and he did it without having to consume even one cup of coffee (though I had many). Kudos, Charlie.
Arriving in New York City in 1995 from his native California (he was born in Oakland but reared in Livermore), Huston at the time was chasing both "actor" ambitions and "a woman." Drawing upon his own biography ("You write what you know"), the author fashioned Hank Thompson, a displaced Californian living on Manhattan's Lower East Side, for his fast-paced first novel, Caught Stealing (2004). When we first meet him, Thompson is an ex-high-school baseball prodigy, whose sports career ended with a hard slide into third base and a resulting broken leg. After six years of trying college, with no degree to show for it, he decamped to New York. There, Hank tends bar six nights a week, which feeds his binge-drinking habits and gives him bad feet. He has also initiated an affair with Yvonne, a fellow bartender. Despite this seemingly quiet existence, Huston establishes an intoxicating first-person voice for Hank Thompson -- a voice that bears both an urban neurotic charm and a keen edge of dry humor. It's the kind of voice that keeps readers holding on, despite the carnage that occurs throughout this series. When Hank's questionable neighbor, Russ Miner, leaves town for a few days to visit his ailing father, in Caught Stealing, he asks Thompson to look after his pet feline, Bud. This seemingly innocuous responsibility opens Hank up to a flurry of trouble, not only in that first novel, but in its two sequels. Caught Stealing also gave birth to a Hustonian theme: What happens to good people when violence is wreaked upon them and they are forced to cross morally questionable lines? Miner is a career criminal with several nasty friends, who has been safeguarding a large quantity of laundered money. His sudden departure from Manhattan alarms a thug named Roman and his gang. They want the money back, and they don't hesitate to turn their malicious attentions on Hank.
Caught Stealing succeeds on at least two levels. The exuberance of Hank's narrative is thick with engaging descriptions of virtually everything he does, and the yarn boasts a breakneck tempo. Huston's plot is straightforward, with very few detours, which serves the action effectively. The story's thugs go by single names only -- Roman, Bolo, Red, Bert, Ernie -- and they can be brutish and homicidal, lacking dimensionality in a pulp-fiction or action-adventure movie sort of way. The danger confronting Hank only escalates when a second set of criminals -- the brothers Ed and Paris Durante -- show up, also looking for Russ Miner and the cash he's been holding. The Durantes are a hipped-up version of Wild West outlaws, both of them dressed in black leather vests, cowboy boots and wide-brimmed hats. Huston gives broad strokes to characterization, providing readers with just enough to hold onto, but no substantive back story. It's a technique that Huston makes good use of throughout the Thompson series and his other works.
With this raft of wrongdoers invading Hank's life, it is inevitable that good people should die -- which means most of Hank's friends. As the bodies pile up -- and the bodies always pile up in a Huston novel -- our hero blames himself for waiting for things to "work themselves out." That's a dead-on self-assessment. Hank's failure to understand how his actions will impact others, and his inability to dictate the behavior of the Durante sibs, leaves the protagonist with few prospects -- and dark ones, at that. Faced with this realization, Hank finally acts, which means answering violence with violence -- another standard of Huston's storytelling. The choices Hank makes are ones the rest of us might make, too. He doesn't get the girl at the end, but at least he gets the money.
The breathless ride begun in that first book was sustained in its sequel, Six Bad Things (2005). Set three years later, in 2003, the tale finds Hank sitting on part of $4.5 million in stolen cash and attempting to stay sober, while acting as silent owner of a Yucatan Peninsula beach bar, The Bucket. It's not a bad life. Hank has become friendly with a local resident named Pedro, whom he employs as the bar's manager. He swims daily in the Gulf of Mexico, and tries to blend into the casual, sunny atmosphere. But his peace is upset when a Russian traveler suddenly turns up, intimating that Hank's family could be in danger from gangsters back in the States, and our hero heads home to Oakland. The themes Huston began exploring in Caught Stealing are plumbed further in Six Bad Things. (The title refers to six scars Hank has inflicted upon himself -- not just reminders of the lives he's taken, but symbols of the deformation of his own inner and outer lives.) Back in Northern California, Hank knows he ought to stay well beneath the law-enforcement radar. But for him, that's about as easy as Tony Soprano turning vegetarian. While trying to purchase a used car, the ex-baseballer steps into a dysfunctional relationship between the auto's owner and his girlfriend, which leads to Hank nearly beating several men to death. Then, not long after reuniting with his parents, Thompson is recognized by the same guys he encountered in the car-buying fiasco, and averts capture only by escaping to Las Vegas.
It's in Nevada's "Sin City" that Hank hopes to locate his friend Tim, "a jazz head and boozer" from New York, who's also a dealer to whom he'd sent the bulk of his ill-gotten dough before leaving Mexico. However, Tim -- who thinks Russian gangsters are dogging his tail, as well -- didn't happen to tell Hank where, precisely, in Vegas to find him. So our hero turns to an old high-school buddy, "T," who dresses like Elvis Presley (complete with oily pompadour and sideburns), has a dog named Hitler, and works as a DJ in a Vegas strip club. It's not long after Hank asks for T's aid that danger rears its head, this time represented by Rolf, an acquaintance of Hank's from Mexico, and Rolf's sidekick, Sid. Both men are sociopaths and stone-cold killers. While Sid misguidedly admires Hank for his outlaw status, Rolf merely wants a share of Hank's swag. By the time Rolf and Sid are done in Six Bad Things, they'll have left Hank with another pile of bodies to shoulder. One wonders whether the calculating mobsters might actually be more welcome than the spontaneously violent Rolf and Sid. That seems to be Hank's thinking, as well, for after finding himself in a drugged stupor at the end of a blood-slicked road, he finally joins forces with the Russians.
"Long before" Caught Stealing was written and sold to Random House, Huston had penned a horror novel featuring Joe Pitt, a vampire P.I. making his home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But that book didn't find a publisher until after the first Thompson story struck gold; then, Huston dug up his bloodsucker and finally sold the novel, Already Dead, which hit bookstores in late 2005. Fast-paced, edgy and full of off-beat humor, Dead displays all of Huston's hallmark talents for crime fiction. The author's thematic interests in a man on the fringes of society, dealing with consequences of violence, are repackaged in this tale about a vampire unable to escape his place as one of the restless Undead. Like Philip Marlowe with a taste for blood over Bacardi, the toothy Pit is comfortable being a loner; but when sufficiently roused by a sense of injustice, he springs into action. This often means hunting "shamblers," humans infected with a bacteria that turns them into flesh-eating zombies -- just another flavor of weirdo in New York. At the start of Already Dead, Pitt hunts down shamblers feasting on NYU students (he has a particular hatred for anyone abusing innocent children, though in this case innocent teenagers), and immediately draws the wrath of the city's vampire clans -- the Society, Enclave, Hood and Coalition -- because his kill is "messy" and brings media attention. There are other, smaller vampire groupings too, including the Dusters, who ride motorcycles and dress in leather, but Pitt doesn't align himself with any of them, preferring to be on his own, a so-called Rogue.
In Huston's fiction, the businesslike Coalition is the most powerful of the vampire clans. Its members could easily drive a stake through Pitt's future, but instead they find him useful -- somebody who'll do them favors. Dead, for instance, finds Coalition leader Dexter Prado telling the P.I. that he can make amends for his shambler kill by helping wealthy socialite Marilee Ann Horde to find her runaway teenage daughter, Amanda. Horde is boozy and flirtatious and knows that Pitt is a vampire. Young Amanda has run away for good reasons: her mother drinks and ignores her, and her father, Dr. Dale Edward Horde, is a certifiable sleazebag. Pitt's soft spot for kids in trouble makes him take on the case -- well, that and the threat of being exposed to the sun by Prado, and then burned alive. As the case progresses, Pitt learns that Prado and Dr. Horde have a more inclusive relationship than he realized (tied in to Horde's owning Bio Technology Inc. and the Coalition's large investments in the firm), and that the good doctor is a pedophile.
Of course, no serious vampire novel is without its hierarchical and cultural foundations. Huston gives us those, and more: he bases vampirism firmly in the scientific realm, explaining that it's caused by a virus. Pitt is compelled to drink blood -- which he stores in pint bottles in his refrigerator -- because the virus makes him do so. In a painful passage late in the book, the reader learns the kind of agony a vampire undergoes, when denied blood for too long. It echoes the emotional pain that Hank Thompson later endures in his bloody confrontations, when he sees his friends die. By Already Dead's end, Pitt does what most successful lone-wolf detectives do: he closes the case and saves the girl, and gives a finger to the establishment (in this case, Dexter Prado).
You'd think that all of this would keep any writer sufficiently occupied. But not Charlie Huston. Earlier this year, he took on the additional role of scriptwriter for Moon Knight, a Marvel comic series robustly illustrated by David Finch. Introduced in 1975, and awarded a series of his own during the 80s, superhero Moon Knight fits comfortably into Huston's lineup of dark and dangerous protagonists. Created by Doug Moench, and once drawn by renowned artist Bill Sienkiewicz, Moon Knight was formerly Marc Spector, an American rabbi's son who became a "ruthless mercenary" before spiraling down into depression, madness and addiction, only to be rescued after a fight in the Egyptian desert and brought back to life by the ancient god Khonshu, for use in fighting evil on Earth. The first issue of Huston's new comic-book series, Moon Knight: The Bottom, hit stores on April 5. Over the next year, series readers will be treated to this author's gritty, urban, violent and emotionally wrenching storytelling. But already, Huston is putting his stamp on the character. Moon Knight's white costume is explained, his multiple personalities are further explored, and several new plot twists -- Spector's legs have been mangled, for one -- will help Huston grow into his role as the new voice of Moon Knight. Now broken, Spector longs to return to his position as "the vigilante of the night," but finds redemption a hard goal to reach. This is territory Huston well understands. While redemption is perhaps ultimately impossible for Hank Thompson (we'll all find out in September, I guess), and though Joe Pitt cannot undo the darkness of being a vampire, and Spector/Moon Knight has a lot to overcome, all of Huston's protagonists strive to lift themselves up from the all-encompassing darkness. Perhaps that's the silver lining in Huston's oeuvre, thus far.
Over a period of several months, Huston talked with me about his Edgar Award nomination (for Six Bad Things), how comic-book enthusiasts compare with crime-fiction readers, and what it's like to live with an actress (his wife of four years, Virginia Louise Smith). In what could be described as life imitating art, Huston also reveals what he most recently has in common with Hank Thompson (hint: it involves capacious packing boxes).
Anthony Rainone: I find it interesting when actors talk about their Oscar nominations, and they recount how they first learned they were in the running for the award. This year the Mystery Writers of America is spending money on publicity and building the Edgar up, so let's equate it with the Oscars. And I'll ask you: where were you when you found out you were nominated for an Edgar?
Charlie Huston: I remember the nominations came out in late February , and they weren't even on my mind. My wife and I had come home from somewhere, and it was very late. I checked my e-mail, and I saw three or four e-mails. Almost all of them [had] "Edgar" in the subject line, and one was from the Mystery Writers of America; the others were from writers I knew. I assumed what it was probably going to be. I opened [the e-mail] from the Mystery Writers of America, and they just send out a list of all the nominations, and all the people who had been nominated, and I saw [my name] and thought that was really cool.
How does it feel to be nominated?
It's great, obviously. It's one of those things where it's extremely flattering and just cool. I don't indulge in any false modesty, or things like that. I do think that in art competition, whether it's writing, or sculpture, or fine arts, or performance art, there's no way to [qualitatively compare] art. And undoubtedly there are published books that slipped through the cracks, and undoubtedly unpublished books that nobody knows about. And so [it has] relative meaning in terms of being a mark of quality. I don't want to denigrate the award itself, but it's hard for me to think of it [as an absolute value]. But like I said -- it's great. The other big component to it is that it's a nice career thing to have. To get a nomination early on with one of my earlier books is a nice thing. I have no clue how far outside mystery circles the Edgar name penetrates. I don't know if it's stamped "Edgar Winner" on the cover of a book that the average Joe, picking up that book, will have any greater reaction, than to any other mystery award stamped on the [cover]. Commercially, I have no idea. It certainly couldn't hurt [to win the award].
To be nominated for an Edgar, or to win one, will certainly help come contract time, dude. How could it not?
Well, that's part of the mystery publishing community that knows what [the Edgar] is. [An Edgar stamp on your book] will help sales in the mystery community, [because] that [community] knows what it is. So yeah, that will help come contract time.
Has your wife gotten sick of hearing you go on and on about the nomination?
[Laughs] My wife would be very happy to have me talk about it more.
Virginia Louise Smith, your wife, is an actress and has appeared on Broadway. I haven't seen any of her plays -- my theory is that more out-of-towners see plays than native New Yorkers -- but I've caught her name on the ads.
My wife is a utility player. She's a great player to have on your bench. She can do a lot of things, but she's not a starter, and she has no illusions about that. [On Broadway] she did Mr. Marmalade. For the past few years, her stock in trade has been appearing on Broadway, in small supporting roles, understudying the lead, generally going on for the lead at times. She has an excellent reputation within the Broadway community, where it's similar to the Edgar [and being known in the mystery community]. People in the [theater] community know who Virginia Louise Smith is and they know they can rely on her for these kinds of [supporting] roles. It's no revelation that there is a real hierarchy in the world of acting. [If I were] to correlate this to fiction writing, it takes a certain amount of work to be a short-story writer. Once you establish yourself [as that], finding editors for your stories, or those who are interested in seeing your stories, won't be that difficult. [But] if you want to be a novelist, or a screenwriter, the fact that you publish short stories is only going to carry you so far. It may allow you to get your manuscripts to an agent or an editor, but there may still be reluctance on the editor's part to take a chance [on someone who is not known for writing novels]. It's the same thing with acting. [Virginia] has risen through the ranks to supporting roles and these great understudy gigs. Mr. Marmalade was a great breakthrough role for her. It was a strong supporting role, [and] it was a multi-character role where she got to show off her chops. She's getting a lot of attention off of that. She's been talking to a lot of new people that she didn't get to talk to before, and hopefully good opportunities will come from it.
What's it like being in a household with two creative individuals? Is there a synergy, or is it a distraction?
The main impact is financial, [since] we're both working in creative fields. That's the biggest cross that [we] bear [and it] has the potential to create stress. Outside of practical matters, I don't think it plays a special role in our relationship. There isn't anything wacky happening in our house. In terms of day to day, there are practical issues. We live in a one-bedroom apartment. My desk is in the bedroom. Virginia does a lot of theater stuff at night, so she has the living room during the day. When she needs space to do her lines, she has the living room. And we're getting ready to move to California in the spring.
Yes. We look at it this way: we own a small business. One side of the business is writing, and one side is acting. Before I make a business decision, even if it's with my agent, or my editor, I try to talk to my wife [first] and check with [her] before doing something. If I sign a contract for a new book, or two, then that will dictate what half of our income is going to be for the next year, or so. So we have to integrate. But neither of us is like "Hell, no! What were you thinking?"
But relocating to L.A. is a major thing, Charlie. For Virginia, I imagine she'll be able to test the film and TV industries. How will it affect you? How did your publisher and agent react to this move?
It's more me motivating the move, and it's not anything professional, but because [California is] where I'm from. We're moving to L.A., because there is no other acting work [to be had elsewhere in California]. Virginia wants to work, and L.A. has theater. Plus, Virginia knows people there. It was very helpful for me, for the first three years or so, while I was getting the writing going, to be living in New York. It allowed me to be in close contact with my agent and my editor, and to meet people like you, and other folks in the literary community and publishing world based in New York, and to create some really strong bonds with the people that I work with. But now my career has a certain amount of stability ... My work relationships are strong and they won't disappear because I'm living in California. I can write from my bedroom in California, as well as I can write from my bedroom in New York. I'm sure I'll be coming back to New York as much as possible, but those work folks that I see on a regular basis socially now, I won't [see regularly] and that will be a shame. But we're going to go out there for a couple of years, and see how it works out. We may be coming back.
Writers don't necessarily need to live in the areas about which they write. Rebecca Pawel, for instance, lives in Manhattan, but sets her Carlos Tejada novels in Spain. Cara Black writes about Paris, but lives in San Francisco. How do you think your moving to the West Coast will impact your novels based in New York?
It will have an impact. ... Just as the various neighborhoods I have lived in [in Manhattan] -- and I have moved from the East Village to Midtown to Inwood -- have [resulted in] subtle differences in the books. The manuscript I'm working on now is set in California. It's a standalone and it's completely different. [But] the Joe Pitt books are going to continue to be set in New York. The Pitt books will keep me busy for the next few years. So, I know I'll be writing about New York. And I was thinking about that just a little while ago. I got down here early and I was taking a walk around the neighborhood [the Lower East Side], and it's easy to lose the flavor of a place -- especially in New York, where neighborhoods change character so quickly. ... So, I was saying to myself that I have to make sure I get back here, when I'm working on those books. To get down here and walk around and take notes, which is the experience I had on the second Pitt book. By the time I wrote that, I was living in Inwood [in upper Manhattan]. And there were days I came down here with my notebook, walking around and writing down things that had changed, since I moved out of the neighborhood. I don't have specific plans to write an L.A. book. I can't imagine that once I get out there, ...with that very different energy and different landscape, it won't start stirring things up in my mind. Eventually, if I'm there long enough, that I'll end up writing something about or in L.A.
Can you tell us more about the standalone set in California?
You know, I'm warming up to the second draft, and it's a complicated book. It's probably better not to talk about it.
That's cool. Let's talk about your multiple projects. You write crime fiction, horror and comic books -- so much to chose from. Let's start where it all started for you, with Henry Thompson and Caught Stealing. What's the deal with Hank? Does he just make bad decisions, or is he in the wrong place at the wrong time?
One of the things I liked about Caught Stealing was that there was no plan. I just started writing it, and from the first draft [emerged] Hank's arc. He's in one place at the beginning of the book, and he's a different guy in a different position at the end. He's making decisions at the end of the book that he wasn't capable of at the beginning. As I went along, [that] became more and more a conscious thing, [because] I didn't want him to be the same. Initially, he's in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then, external forces start acting on him, and he starts changing. What I also came to realize, as I worked on Six Bad Things, and then even later on in the last book in the trilogy, A Dangerous Man, [is that] to a certain extent Hank's story is the story of changes that can be wrought on a person specifically by violence. The largest chip in his personality and in his behavior has to do with acts of violence committed to him, to his pet, to his friends and to his family. The dire consequences he suffers are the result of the acts of violence that he committed.
The violence done to him, and by him, is a changing force?
There is this sense that Hank is an Everyman and that violence is a warping phenomenon. Whether it happens to you or somebody else -- it changes your world. There's no way to be emotionally immune to it and not feel the emotional impact of it. It's going to have an effect on the world around you. And that in itself is going to change your behavior and the way you act with other people. Your attitudes toward violence and your experience with violence are going to change.
What about the sports references in your books? Hank is an ex-baseball prodigy. Your chapter headings are sports terms. Are you a baseball and football fan?
I can't play worth a goddamn, but I love the game. I was a baseball late-bloomer. My family was a football and soccer family. But I went to college in San Francisco and I had an apartment full of Giants fans. And they were going to the World Series, so it was a real good time to climb aboard. The first book follows all the clichés about the first book being about the writer's life. So, the baseball connection, all the bartender stuff, little bits and pieces here -- [there are] lots of personal things that I put in. You write what you know. I'm a big [Miami] Dolphins fan as well.
Hank is close to his parents. I'm guessing you are close to yours. How have your parents reacted to your writing career? Are they happy to have you back on the West Coast?
Best thing about selling a book, or any other career milestone, is calling my folks to tell them about it. They are thrilled that I'll be closer to home.
At the end of Six Bad Things, I get the sense that circumstances are once again changing or Hank. I get the sense that A Dangerous Man is going to be even darker.
When I started A Dangerous Man, and I don't think this is any surprise [given] the end of Six Bad Things, ... I thought what I was going to be doing was writing a book about Hank the hit man; and while it's going to be the darkest of the trilogy, I thought it would be even darker. I [ultimately] realized there's no way to write the story that way. There's no way to write Hank that way. So while he has a job that involves hurting people, he's not very good at it. And he'll have all kinds of addiction issues, because even though he theoretically kicked booze at the end of Caught Stealing, he's slipping back to those things. Which I think is true to the nature of addiction. I was uncomfortable with some of the things he was doing in Six Bad Things, and I wanted him to be impaired. And at the end of the book, I wanted to blur the action with dream sequences, where the reader wouldn't know if he was dreaming, or not dreaming.
I was wondering about the scene with Hank and his Las Vegas friend, Tim, all the violence done to Tim and then, what happens to the money?
I wanted [Hank] to be the one to shoot Timmy. And I didn't want him to know where the money was. But that's not the ultimate moral line that he crosses in that book. The ultimate moral line to me is when he shoots Dylan Lane [A businessman indebted to the Russian mafia and who threatens Hank in attempts to get the 4.5 million dollars for himself. Lane is a fake though &emdash; he is scared of the Russian mafia as much as Hank]. The guy is clearly not a threat. [Hank] does that for purely selfish reasons at that stage of the game. I have a line in there where Hank says, "This is the first time I killed for revenge." He killed for family, for friends. But now that's not the case. He crosses out of the realm of the man in the wrong place at the wrong time. [Yet] he still remains a sympathetic character.
How does it feel to have finished Hank's story?
It's actually been awhile since I finished that last book. I'll probably feel more when the book comes out. On the one hand, I can say, "I'm done with this and I don't have to do it anymore. I actually did the whole story and it's over, and I don't have to tell it anymore." I can walk away and it's never going to be speaking to me again. Then there's the other side where you say, "Man, that's it. The story is in the bag. I'm not going to be able to take him back out." And that's a shame. So, [I have] mixed feelings.
Well, Hank's time may be over, but I just bought the first issue of Moon Knight, the comic you are scripting. It kicks ass, man. The story is cool -- which I expected from you -- and the graphics are hot. How did this Marvel thing happen?
It's a work-for-hire gig for a six-issue mini-series. Moon Knight premiered in 1975 [in the Marvel series Werewolf by Night]. ... The character had a lot of potential, but it was a bit ahead of its time, and the series died. They kept trying to resurrect [it] in the 80s and early 90s, but it was not very good. [Within Marvel], a Moon Knight rustle has been growing and people have been asking for the series again. At the same time, there's this publishing initiative at Marvel, whereby they are publishing novels based on their characters. Ruwan Jayatilleke is the director of development, and a big trend there now is finding writers outside of comic books [to write the series]. Jonathan Lethem [Motherless Brooklyn] will be writing an Omega The Unknown miniseries; [television writer/producer] Reggie Hudlin is writing Black Panther; and Orson Scott Card is doing an Iron Man series.
How did you get tagged for Moon Knight?
Ruwan knows somebody at my agency. I don't know if they had me in mind or not, but I got an e-mail from my agent asking if [I'd be interested]. I pick up a comic book every now and then, and in the past year, I've looked at things a little bit more regularly. [The scripting offer] came at a time when I was excited about the idea and wanting to work a lot. So, I started talking to the guys at Marvel. Ruwan read Caught Stealing and Six Bad Things, he liked them, and he pushed me with the editorial staff. They had Moon Knight on the table, and it was noirish and it seemed like a good fit for me. As it happens, it was also a comic I was familiar with in high school. It wasn't a character that had a whole lot written about [him] in the past 20 years either, so that was good, too.
I think a lot of guys relate to comics. I was really into them and still pick up an issue here and there. What's it like writing a comic book?
[Comic-book publishers] have rules about when you can pitch to them. You can't pitch anything to them until you sign a document that says you won't sue them. At first, they spoke only vaguely about Moon Knight -- mainly generalities. They had me speak to some of the editors I would work with, and before they got down to any specifics, they had me sign that document. Also before you pitch, you have to sign a contract. If you pitch something to them and they like it and want to use it, then they already have you signed. I got lucky. I went through a swift and sweat-free process -- I only had to pitch once. And they made only one slight change. Since then, everything's been going pretty smoothly. The series will premiere in April 2006. David Finch is the artist. He's currently working on the New Avengers, and he's what's called a top-10 artist.
Let me see if I understand this. When you write your comics, you have to imagine what most of the characters look like, right? The words come first.
Pretty much. And I like that. My books don't have much description of the characters to begin with, anyway. I'll have stick figures -- ponytail man and vomit man. [Laughs] I give my ideas [on what the comic-book villains maybe look like] to David. One villain I imagined had a mean look and an accountant-type look. [David] came back with a guy who looked mean, but like a Rat Pack look instead -- gold chains, a pencil-thin mustache. It was fucking great. And he's the illustrator, so I let him do his fucking job. And he's great.
How do deadlines work in the world of comics?
When I got the gig, I did what amounted to six months of scripts, only because the [publication rate] wasn't set. They eventually decided on monthly issues and the first issue [was published in early April]. So I'm six months ahead, but not because I was [so diligent]. It just worked out that way.
Comic-book heroes and villains kind of go hand-in-hand with vampires, so maybe we should talk now about your vampire P.I., Joe Pitt. Like Hank Thompson, he's a killer. But both are motivated by the horror around them.
While [the Thompson books] are noirish, [they're] not specifically noir. There are breaks in the tradition. [Already Dead, the first Pitt novel] was written long before Caught Stealing, long before there was any book deal. It was written entirely on my own in a vacuum from the publishing world. I made a choice to write [Already Dead] in a noir mode, though there are parallels with Hank Thompson. They both live in New York City, and both [their stories] are in first-person. Horror tradition aside, Pitt lives in a classic hard-boiled world with a noir morality. [Already Dead] is my [Raymond] Chandler morality [tale]. One of the rules of that [is] your protagonist can be a badass and a killer. But your protagonist has to stand for something, and usually at some point, it's for the protection of the innocent. There is some aspect of innocence that he is after.
Why vampires, though?
I sat down wanting to write about a cool, badass vampire that lived in my neighborhood in Manhattan. I didn't sit down to write Chandler -- that just happened. When [Pitt] gets beat up, he can kick fucking-ass right back, no moral quandaries. The initial impulse came out of the vampire thing. I knew it would be hard-boiled. After the first 100 pages, I started looking at Chandler more, the way he did things and putting it to work for me. Pitt is influenced by Chandler all the way. Shameless, blatant Chandler. Yet, at some point, I'm thinking, How am I going to make people like this guy? He's a vampire! You know, I'm writing a character that I like -- someone that I would like to hang out with. At some point, I'm writing about things that I think are cool. It's a book about biker vampires and wanting to do cool things.
Do you find yourself tackling similar problems in writing horror versus crime fiction and comics?
I was on two panels at [the annual comic-book fans convention] Comicon: a noir panel and a horror panel. And on the horror panel, one of the writers said he wasn't very worried about veracity, but he was worried about verisimilitude. And this is something that I've always internally known. That as long as you create something that is an internally consistent world, that has rules and touches reality at certain key points, you can usually convince the reader. The Hank Thompson books are very much concerned with verisimilitude. That is a very conscious thing for me. So, even if Hank is going to have plastic surgery to turn himself into a hit man, I'm still going to talk to a plastic surgeon on the phone. I'm still trying to keep it grounded in some type of psychological, emotional concrete. Even though Hank's world is not the real world, I want it to reflect it accurately. On the other hand, Joe lives in a funhouse mirror, and that's [done] consciously. I want [his] civilian world to operate similar to ours, so that the contrast to Joe's underground world is clear and apparent. And that's part of the fun, to install the zombies and vampires into a world that looks like ours and behaves like ours to a large extent. But I've got a lot more room in the Joe Pitt books to go crazy and have fun and be cool. Joe Pitt can still fucking smoke in a bar in his world.
Joe's world is just as dark as Hank's, whether it's based on the real world or not. There are scenes in Already Dead that blew me away.
The rape scene in the basement of the school -- that was hard. It was uncomfortable to write that scene. Part of it was poking into the dark corners of your own mind. Part of it was a concern that the scene not be exploitive. I wanted it hard to read, but not exploitive. I didn't want to have child molestation and the rape of the mom just to have something horrible going on. I wanted there to be specific reasons why these things were occurring in the plot. And in this case, it was part of the [bad guy's] plan. I think more than any other scene of violence that I worked on, that was a tough one.
What is it like to mentally shift from one project to another? Do you feel yourself getting schizophrenic?
There's a dark sensibility that runs through everything I've done so far. Hank Thompson's world and Joe Pitt's world are different; even though they have the same neighborhood, they are in parallel universes. But the sensibility is quite similar. And a lot of that sensibility is going to be in Moon Knight. The trick ...is making distinctions that are concrete for me. It's very easy to say that one is crime, one is horror and one is comic books. [But] because I work from a similar place with similarities about violence, where the morality operates in a very similar way in each of those worlds, and where the rules of crime and punishment operate very similarly in those worlds, even though they are different on the surface, they feel very similar to me.
I hear what you're saying. I think that Marc Spector [aka Moon Knight] is clearly as dark as Hank, or Joe. Maybe darker.
The trickier part is finding those distinctions in each, and also shuffling all your observations, the notes you take daily, between the three writing projects. Also budgeting your conscious thinking time into each project. And you can never really shut down the other stories. For example, when I complete the first draft of a new book manuscript and turn it in to my agent and editor, then that's the perfect time to turn my attentions to Moon Knight. Joe Pitt came out in December, so I know I have some time before I have to start working on another Joe Pitt [novel]. So, when a novel is giving me fits and I'm banging my head against it, ... it can be a relief to set it aside and say, "I've got this other thing going and I can put myself into this other world." You don't turn the [book giving you fits] completely off, but I at least push it to my back brain. So, there is a logic in just making sure everything is moving forward. The rest is bullshit if you're not hitting deadlines.
Who's the freakier crowd: mystery, horror or comic-book fans?
The comic-book people tend to be chattier, more talkative. I will answer their e-mails -- and it's not like I get an unmanageable amount of e-mail, so I try to answer them to be polite -- and then they will reply with an even longer e-mail! Horror fans will be more [effusive] about my books -- you know, "I really like your books, man." Horror people will sometimes show up dressed like their favorite characters. Mystery people are the least talkative of the three groups, but they know the books. They're very informed.
Didn't you see the costumes at Bouchercon, in Chicago, last September?
I saw a few deerstalker caps. [Laughs]
And do crime-fiction fans fill up your e-mailbox, too?
I got one from this guy in Southeast Asia. He ordered Caught Stealing from Amazon. Then he found a copy of Six Bad Things over there. He goes to this expatriates bar and they have a lending thing, where people bring in books and they all take turns borrowing them. He said my book is always making the rounds. That's neat.
Let's move away from the books, and get into your personal background a bit more. Who have been the influences on your writing? I get the sense that Six Bad Things is like On the Road meets Quentin Tarantino.
With Caught Stealing, the two writers I was thinking about while writing it were James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy. The Ellroy influences are going to be more obvious -- the prose styling of Ellroy, the crispness of the writing and his depiction of violence. In particular, his way of making violence come out of left field on the written page better than any writer I know. With McCarthy, [he's] one reason why I don't use quotation marks. McCarthy lays out his dialogue the same way, though I use dash marks. And I wanted the dialogue to roll and carry a lot of the action. His prose is so dense and gorgeous, and I love the way he describes a character's action.
What is your writing process like?
I write on a schedule. I get up, exercise and write. I usually get rolling sometime in the mid-morning. I write five days a week. Some days, I sit in the chair, but the actual time my fingers hit the keys might be a half hour. The goal I have at the end of the five-day work week is 10 edited pages that are going to likely appear in the published edition, with minimal changes. I may not hit 10 pages [some weeks], and my high water mark is 30 to 40 pages a week. I don't write a first draft and then go back. I write the first draft and edit while I go.
Do you outline?
No. I tried it and I couldn't do it. The way I work -- I have a beginning, a basic concept of who some of the characters are, [and] I have a clear idea of the ending. If I get a cool idea, I go with it, not worrying about how [the character will] get out of it. I just write it. Shove him into a corner and then figure out how to get him out of it. It all seems to go. The worst times are [when] you have a place where you can go four or five different ways, and if you go down one of those directions, it's going to be hard to come back out. Those are the hardest moments for me. It comes down to saying you've got to commit to it. Close your eyes and run down the hallway. If it's a dead end, it's a dead end.
Ever think about writing in third-person, rather than first-person?
The standalone set in California is in third-person, and in either past tense or shifting tense. It will be [written with] a multiple character point of view. I wanted to break away from what I was doing with Hank and Joe. I need to try and do more characters. I need to work with more female characters.
How did you get into writing in the first place?
[I was a] scribbler from a young age -- not very athletic, shy. All those things. I did declare as a creative-writing major when I went to [college], but that lasted less than a semester, because I hated classes. Then, I had years and years of acting. I got my B.A. in communications and thought I would teach speech, [but] I went to grad school in acting. I came to New York. It was hard. You make choices. I had a theater company, and now that's gone. I tended bar and I started writing. I started Caught Stealing with a few lines and it grew. I was motivated to finish the book once I wrote 100 pages. I didn't want to not finish that book.
I try to write an entry for my site once a week. Ideally, I want every entry to relate in some way to writing and/or the world of publishing. The bulk of my knowledge on those subjects is based on recent personal experience, so the tone of the pieces tends to be anecdotal. Some weeks, finding something to write about that might be of some value or be marginally entertaining is just a huge pain in the ass. Some weeks, it's a breeze. In either case, I've found it's a good exercise to require one piece a week. It helps to instill discipline and breaks up the routine of whatever else I may be working on. Certainly I want my Web site to serve as a point of contact for my readers. If it just sits there doing nothing but telling you where I was born and where to click if you want to buy my books, well, that's not really getting the job done. If you want to engage your readers through your Web site, you have to give them a reason to come back.
You're moving to Los Angeles. Despite all the projects you already have going, I wonder if there's not one more in mind. Are you working on a screenplay?
This is America. Everyone has a screenplay in mind. Why should I be any different? | April 2006