City of Strangers

by John Shannon

Published by Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler

265 pages, 2003

Buy it online

The Jack Liffey Mysteries:

  • The Concrete River (1996)
  • The Cracked Earth (1999)
  • The Poison Sky (2000)
  • The Orange Curtain (2001)
  • Streets on Fire (2002)
  • City of Strangers (2003)  









"Somebody's got to be our surrogate crank, or who [else] would protest racism, corruption at so many levels, bad architecture, the money culture, creeping chain-store-itis and all the rest? The newspapers have abdicated, and all other opposition to the "Republicrat" regime is so marginalized as to be nearly invisible. I don't think there's ever been a place with such a homogenized ideology. You can read the first few words of any newspaper article or editorial in any paper in America and guess all of the rest. This is one of the few places on the face of the earth where ignorance is considered a legitimate point of view."






I have to confess -- I like John Shannon. At first glance, the 59-year-old Los Angeles author looks sort of like a gruff, older version of Winnie-the-Pooh, only wiser and more weathered. I've run into him a few times over the years, at various crime cons, and he's always been friendly, amusing, witty, quick with a drink or to laugh at your jokes, and refreshingly down to earth. But watch out -- this bear has claws. His detective fiction, featuring reluctant private eye Jack Liffey, is far from the cute, cuddly stuff of children's stories. Unless something has gone very, very wrong indeed in the 100 Acre Wood.

Of course, Shannon's playground is not some bucolic forest; rather, it's the mean and often very surreal streets of modern L.A. More than any other crime writer working today, he captures the heartbeat and history of that twisted city of fallen angels. And his sense of community goes considerably deeper than knowing the latest trendy restaurants or the best place to buy feng shui mushrooms. Shannon isn't content to merely zero in on one tiny area of this sprawling metropolitan mess. No, he's eschewed the safe predictability of getting one tiny slice of the city right, and opted instead for the seemingly impossible task of bearing witness to the whole enchilada -- every cultural nook and cranny, from East L.A. to Hollywood, from the Mexican border to the high desert.

And Shannon's tales aren't simply creative diversions. No, in this era when the wisecracks of late-night talk-show hosts pass for serious topical discourse, free speech is deemed somehow unpatriotic, and the White House contrives to spread its own dumbed-down form of political correctness, Shannon is intelligent, fiercely unapologetic and defiantly politicized. He's staked himself out at a refreshing distance from the middle of the road. In the course of six novels so far, beginning with The Concrete River (1996) and continuing right up to this year's highly acclaimed and timely City of Strangers, which deals with Iranian students, Arab terrorists and detective Liffey's own near nervous breakdown, the author has laid claim to the fractured, contorted and grim reality of Los Angeles -- a place where conventional wisdom may be the biggest absurdity of them all. Shannon's fiction makes clear that, though he may not have all the answers, he can sure ask some good questions.

He's not too shabby at fielding queries, either. Over the course of several face-to-face encounters and e-mail exchanges, we covered subjects ranging from his activist past to his interest in social history, the ups and downs of his Liffey series, and how he almost killed off his detective protagonist. This is a guy who really knows how to share a good story. I swear, half his responses could start with "Once upon a time ..."


Kevin Burton Smith: Over the course of the Jack Liffey series, you've pretty much nailed L.A. to the wall. Are you a native son?

John Shannon: No, I was actually born in Detroit, and we moved out here to San Pedro [California] after the war, when I was 5. My father had big dreams of becoming a journalist.

What was he like, your dad?

He was a lifelong pacifist, really a man of great integrity and decency, considering his childhood. He was supporting his family at 14 by doing photography during the Depression, because his own father had taken off. And then, during [World War II], my father became a combat cameraman -- he shot footage of battles all across Europe. Later, he studied journalism on the GI Bill. That's how we ended up in San Pedro.

What was it like growing up in that industrialized harbor town?

It was interesting. San Pedro may have been the last great place to grow up in the L.A. area -- a harbor, a real sense of community, a real Left, even a literary history: [Charles] Bukowski, Louis Adamic, even Richard Henry Dana stayed [here] for a time. I could ride the ferry across to Terminal Island, hang out at the docks, walk down the harbor among the commercial fishing boats with old Sicilians and Croatians mending their nets, catch crawdads in Averill Park.

So you were living very much on the outskirts of L.A.

Right on the edge of civilization at the time, with only the yellowing hills beyond. I loved to go exploring, even stepped on rattlers a couple of times as a child. Once I ran yelling all the way home, imagining a high-speed snake right behind me.

It sounds pretty working-class.

It was. And pretty self-consciously so, at times, as well. It was impossible to swallow the Cold War myth that we were all middle-class now, whatever that might mean. I grew up with the sons of radical longshoremen, shipyard workers and fishermen. They still called themselves Yugoslavs then, rather than Croats or Serbs. My friends were proud of the tale -- probably apocryphal -- that their fathers had once hidden in wait for the LAPD "Red Squad," and beat the shit out of them.

[San Pedro is] a real town with a real history, not like all these bland featureless suburbs. It's the place where Upton Sinclair and a number of Wobblies were arrested for trying to read the Constitution during a port strike in 1923, and this is well known in town, not forgotten. The town still has its own left-wing alternative weekly -- Random Lengths -- and one of the oldest bookstores in America [Williams' Book Store]. Unfortunately, it lost about half of its wonderful downtown to the mindless urban renewers of the 1970s, and the resulting hole sat vacant for ages, until the usual upended Kleenex boxes moved in.

What's left has become something of an art colony, and on "First Thursdays" every month the whole downtown becomes a street party, with open galleries, food booths and parades of customized 1950s cars.

Wow. It sounds like Jack Liffey's kind of place. Is he ever going to take on San Pedro, maybe one of these days?

Actually, my next Jack Liffey, Terminal Island [due out in 2004], is almost all set in San Pedro.

Well, it does sound like you have a real affection for the place.

I do. I think I was lucky to be growing up in a peculiar historical moment of peace and tranquility that will probably never be repeated. There were so many fathers [who] returned from that war all at once, and they all used the brilliant GI Bill, hoping to build a better world for their children. And they really did it, at least up to a point. Of course, you also have to pretend there was no racism and that the Eisenhowerian repression that the Beats complained about so eloquently was part of our dues for all that kite-flying and playing in the park after dark.

What about your mom? She must have been pretty tough, too.

I should say she was tough. My mother was from Detroit, too. Her family had been also been pretty much devastated by the Depression. She went through an ordeal of exile that it is hard for me to imagine. She was part of a large, closely knit family back in Detroit, but after the war she left them all behind. My dad wanted to come to California, like so many others, to remake himself: autoworker to journalist. Dutifully and uncomplainingly she came, cutting all those immensely important ties. While my dad looked for work, she was stuck in a sad little tarpaper bungalow that's now in the heart of the black community south of downtown, without her friends or family.

When I did a life-history taped interview with my dad toward the end of his life, he finally expressed how regretful he felt about this. A year after their arrival, when he finally had a reporter's job in the harbor [area] and they had moved into our first little postwar house in San Pedro, he said there was a moment when he looked into the living room and saw [my mother] comfortably reading a book, and he knew everything would be all right.

She liked to read?

My mother took college courses all through my childhood, one after another, until she eventually piled up enough credits for a B.A. and then a master's [degree] in Literature. And, in fact, my mother made friends easily and did just fine in San Pedro, working for a long time in a nationally prominent pre-school, taking classes, earning her master's ... and becoming president of the Friends of the Library.

Your mom and dad sound like quite the characters. Who do you think you take after more?

I look remarkably like my dad, but I carry fewer of the scars of the Depression and war. Much of the weight he carried, like so many of his generation, was never deposited on my shoulders, but I hope I have some of my father's integrity. I certainly have my mother's love of reading and [her] intellectual interest.

Any brothers or sisters?

I have a brother, Michael, and a sister, Peggy -- seven and eight years younger than me. The muses distributed talents off a program. My brother has developed into a fine painter and my sister probably could have become a concert pianist, if she'd been so inclined.

Did you go to college?

I went to Pomona College [in Claremont, California] and then UCLA, where I received one of the first [master of fine arts degrees] in film. I worked on a newspaper, taught two years in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa, worked as a technical writer and video producer, lived twice in England for extended periods, and spent much of the 1970s as a political activist in the antiwar movement and the New Left.

So you were involved in the antiwar movement. How were you saved from being drafted?

Pure miracle. I joined the Peace Corps in 1968, and the draft board had already announced that nobody would be given a two-year deferment for the Peace Corps service if he would be over the draft age of 26 at the end of the two years (as I would have been). Two PC volunteers were drafted right out of my group -- one from training in Louisiana, and one yanked back from his teaching post in Malawi. Instead, I got a polite letter with a II-S occupational deferment, and I've never known why. Perhaps because I turned 18 at college, and the nearest draft board was a fairly high enlistment area in north Pasadena. But I was all set to thumb my nose at the draft board, and go to prison.

Do you consider yourself a pacifist? And how do you reconcile that with the violence of the genre in which you've chosen to write?

Well, I'm not really a pacifist. As I say, I was ready to defy the draft and do my two years in a federal prison in Arizona. I even had my speech worked out -- I was going to say I'd be more than happy to toddle off to fight Hitler, but not this imperial war. I guess I was enough of a romantic at the time to want to make a grand statement that way, the way Emerson or Thoreau probably would have.

As for the violence in the genre, well, I think that -- at least as far as I practice it -- my work in the genre is not all that violent. There are scenes here and there of cruelty and violence, as there are in life -- [the 20th century] was pretty cruel, after all. But I hope they're redeemed by a certain attitude of fingernails-dug-in acceptance of the human condition. It's the only condition we've got. Jack insists again and again that it's intellectually dangerous to assign meaning to loss and catastrophe. It leads to all sorts of false consciousness (though he would never put it in those terms). There is no meaning to things, but we still have to push the rock up the hill with Sisyphus. Bless the fact that so many survive with a good heart.

How did you support yourself, back in your activist days?

I worked in a rubber factory for two years, mostly making the best basketballs in America (for Voit). The place had been bought by a multinational and they were trying to break the union. We were able to resist then -- but capitalism marches on. Eventually the work was all shipped to China and the plant razed. I believe the quality became so bad that the brand doesn't even exist anymore. Even the United Rubber Workers union has been destroyed. If [the multinationals] get their way, we'll all be making minimum-wage and eating cat food.

You started out as a journalist, early in your life. When did you make the switch to being a novelist?

I was actually a lousy journalist -- but then, I was too young to try it. I was only 18, doing it as a summer job, and I never had half the chutzpah I needed. How do you ask a woman her age? Jeez. I just couldn't do it, and guessing was a very bad idea, besides being unethical. I admire journalists immensely, but I'd rather make things up. I've written fiction as long as I can remember, back to illustrated stories in grammar school.

And the Jack Liffey novels weren't your first books, right?

No, I published four novels before turning to crime fiction. The Orphan [1972] was a growing-up novel set in the hippie 1960s in Los Angeles. Courage [1975] is a novel of political revolution in Africa. Broken Codes [1986] is a spy thriller setting cynical American spy agencies against one another in the streets of London, and The Taking of the Waters [1994] is a three-generation saga of the American Left, moving from the water wars in central California in the 1920s to the bitter collapse of the New Left in the 1970s.

It could be said that there are ways of being truer in fiction than in fact-based material, and it's a shame that America's reading habits are turning so heavily toward non-fiction. "I don't read much fiction any more." I hear that all the time, alas.

What made you choose to write crime stories?

I had a history professor tell me just a few weeks ago that The Taking of the Waters is an American classic. But I don't think something can be a classic if it's buried so deep under the great gray slabs of the few international publishing monopolies that nobody can find it, let alone read it. So part of it was that I just wanted to sneak back into the Big House.

My pre-mystery novels generally had good reviews, and I had fine publishers and all that, but as I got increasingly political, I realized I had become, for all practical purposes, "gray-listed" if not blacklisted. Suddenly, nobody would answer my calls -- [not] even my own agent. So I formed a small press, John Brown Books, to publish The Taking of the Waters, but it ended up a pretty marginal venture. That's one reason I'm really pleased with my current publisher -- Carroll & Graf, under the Otto Penzler imprint, is one of the last of the independents. At least they're not -- so far -- owned by some German multinational or some foul Australian robber baron.

Why are you and your man Jack so cranky?

Why not? Somebody's got to be our surrogate crank, or who [else] would protest racism, corruption at so many levels, bad architecture, the money culture, creeping chain-store-itis and all the rest? The newspapers have abdicated, and all other opposition to the "Republicrat" regime is so marginalized as to be nearly invisible. I don't think there's ever been a place with such a homogenized ideology. You can read the first few words of any newspaper article or editorial in any paper in America and guess all of the rest. This is one of the few places on the face of the earth where ignorance is considered a legitimate point of view. The poorest peasant in Mexico has a better grasp of who his enemies are and where he is situated in the world.

And the reason for that would be ...?

I don't think we've begun to come to terms with what a disaster the Cold War was for this country. In depriving ourselves of a viable Left, we have created, in metaphor, an arm with only one muscle, and we're now watching it clench tighter and tighter. If this trend toward arrogant empire continues, I'm quite sure we're doomed as a nation, and that would be imponderably sad. America embodied the promise of the Enlightenment, for the whole world -- but the corporate lizards and the religious right have joined forces to crush that hope. If only they would let Gore Vidal run one daily newspaper.

So what has ticked off Jack lately?

The dumbing down of the culture. The novel I'm working on now [Dangerous Games, which is two ahead of City of Strangers] focuses on it -- the lowest of the [cultural] dregs, like backyard wrestling and amateur porn and videos of the homeless beating each other up. I suppose from Roman times people have been saying we can't get much lower, but I honestly have a hard time imagining much worse -- maybe public executions, which are probably in store for us if we keep electing moronic Texans.

Not to mention any names, of course ...

Of course.

What inspired you to use the mystery genre to tell your social history of L.A.?

In part, I think this darkling genre is wonderfully useful as a way of staying in touch with the doings of the underclass in America, with the marginalized and forgotten. I hope to [gradually] build up a jigsaw puzzle picture of the city through sending Jack Liffey into one ethnic and social community after another. It's a social history of layer upon layer of greed and exploitation, ethnic groups confronting one another eye to eye, honest souls trying to make their private peace, a public sector breaking down, rising hysteria all around -- thus, Jack Liffey's America at the turn of the millennium.

Mind you, I also want each book to be able to stand alone as well, not just as a whodunit puzzle, but as a serious novel of character and social analysis, delving into who's ox is goring whom in America today. For example, the first book, The Concrete River, has as an underlying theme the way developers used neighborhood organizations (not just in L.A.) to divide our cities ethnically -- a theme first brought to light by the remarkable L.A. social historian Mike Davis in his much-praised City of Quartz.

Hey, there's a Mike in your books who's an L.A. historian!

Right. [Davis is] a friend of mine and a continuing character in the books, under the name "Mike Lewis."

Yet another genesis [of the Liffey books] was my wish to create a detective who was an Everyman with no particular detecting skills or bravado -- a decent, strong-willed, honest man, but really only a laid-off aerospace technician who is struggling to make ends meet and keep up with his child-support payments by tracking down missing children. There is also an epic element to the series in that each of the books contains an ordeal or a natural disaster that makes heavy demands on Jack Liffey. In the first book, he and his woman friend [Eleanor Ong] are tied up and hurled into L.A.'s storm drains, just as a flash flood bears down from a mountain storm, and they must make their way through the sewer pipe with the water rising. Later books contain a large earthquake, a poison gas spill, et cetera.

You certainly do make L.A. seem like a fun place to live.

Yes, that's a running joke, if you like, of the dystopic, increasingly chaotic nature of America today. Wherever Jack Liffey goes he is beset by random and utterly gratuitous oddities -- naked men bellowing and hurling ice plants into traffic, amputees dueling with their prosthetic arms, crashed poultry trucks with burning chickens fleeing in all directions.

Are there any particular absurdities you've spotted lately, and which might make their way into your next book?

I hate to tell you this, but I make a lot of them up. I have a few real ones saved to scatter amongst them, but you'll just have to read the next book to see.

You've certainly brought a welcome absurdist touch to the P.I. form. What is it about L.A. that provokes this?

L.A. is where everybody from the Midwest came to reinvent themselves, and there is something so essentially desperate and dishonest in that venture that it breaks down quite often into self-deception, crime or simple eccentricity. Or, of course, crime on a very large scale, like MGM. This peopling of L.A. with the hopeful and desperate was a perfect mesh with the birth of the Hollywood film [industry] of the Golden Age, since that odd world had no genuine underpinnings, either. No wonder noir was born here (throw in a little German expressionism and exile angst, too.)

But in another sense, the world itself is absurd. We all die, and for insufficient reason. The absurd is an attitude and a recognition, a profound positive assertion of the human spirit, not just a tap dance on the ashes. I like the tap dance, because it can express something mischievous about dystopic breakdown, but it's never just a decoration.

As absurd as Los Angeles can be, you're in danger of being called "the Randy Newman of crime fiction." Admit it: you love L.A.

Do I love L.A.? Is a bear Catholic? Does the Pope shit in the woods? This great big agglomeration of multinational hopes is as vibrant as any city in America. As Mike says, "Wake up and smell the refried beans." Where else can you go from Korea directly to Central America? I know New York has its own brand of diversity, and people mix a bit better at street level there, but it's all rather masked by corporate architecture. When you're anywhere in our vast Koreatown, man, you know it. And just over the hills, there's the remains of a utopian colony. And very near that there is a big open area where on weekends Indios play a very strange game with a big ball and punching-bricks strapped to their fists and a tall pole marker, a game that has to go back to the Aztecs or further. The list of stuff like this is endless.

I love the mini-guided tour of downtown Los Angeles that can be found on your Web site, and I actually followed it, after I moved to the city last summer. When will your next tour be ready?

I know, I promise several others on my Web site, and I feel remiss. But each one needs some real research time. Things may have changed (this is the city where we eat our history), and you have to give things a real test right down at ground level. For example, about half the Orange County Vietnamese "cultural center" -- actually a big parking lot with statues and wonderful historical bas-reliefs that I described in The Orange Curtain -- has been knocked down now to make room for a few houses, so that tour that I had in my head is drastically altered. Bug me again on this. I must add to that list.

So name for me a few of your favorite mystery authors.

I am not that widely read in the mystery genre, actually, but I suppose my favorite mystery writers are the same as everyone else's -- Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, though he's a trifle too Freudian for my taste. All three could write like a dream and cared about their craft as writers.

What kind of books do you read other than mysteries?

Currently, I am on a personal campaign to read, or try to read, all the [winners of] Pulitzers, Nobels, Bookers and National Book Awards of the last 30 years. It seems to me a near minimum goal to consider oneself an educated person.

Why don't you read more crime fiction?

Every third book or so, I do try to slip in a mystery. I don't mean to put mysteries down at all, just because they deal with crime instead of soul searching, but very few of them have the kind of startling and exciting prose of an early Robert Stone or Jim Harrison or Joan Didion. There are, however, truly great [authors], such as Kent Anderson and Jim Crumley, and truly challenging ones like Jim Sallis, and I don't want to miss those either.

I read a lot of general fiction, and my favorite corner of fiction is a ragged little outpost of literature that I find I enjoy more than most others. It seems to me to be the harsh breath of the modern world -- and I apologize in advance if it also seems to be largely (though not exclusively) a male preserve. Names: Chandler, Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Kent Anderson (especially his stunning Sympathy for the Devil), Richard Ford (especially the magnificent and overlooked The Ultimate Good Luck), Wallace Stegner, even Willa Cather. These books are morally serious, hard-edged and largely unsentimental, dealing with silences and disappointment and inner strength. And rage. Often, but not always, they are minimalist in form. This harsh outpost is full of magnificent spare dialogue out of Hemingway, usually crisp and indirect; descriptions that are often witty and vivid, and shocking with their abrupt concrete metaphors. More names: Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (if only for the wonderful world-weary True Confessions), [Joseph] Conrad, some Graham Greene, Nadine Gordimer (think of The Conservationist), Cormac McCarthy and a new writer I've just discovered, Stewart O'Nan.

None of these writers lives exclusively in this dangerous fortress on the edge of literature, out among the Picts and wild men who paint themselves blue, but most of the ones I've mentioned have paid their dues out there and know that the world is not benign, not easy, not pacific and, above all, not redeemable in any grand fashion. Down these mean tales men and women must go who are not themselves mean ... It's a noble existential calling. Out on the frontier, our surrogate adventurers have to face the ugly and cruel every day, and every day they have to reinvent human decency, out of nothing. It's a bleak vision and the characters are often only too willing to settle for less rather than more. Sometimes, it's enough for them simply to know that decency might have been, but wasn't. They patrol the frontiers for us, witty and vivid and frightened, and though they never find anything to plug the God-sized hole in the world, they usually offer themselves as human sacrifice.

What do you think of other mystery writers whose work touches on political themes?

Bless them. And not just political themes: social, psychiatric, ethnic, philosophical, curmudgeonly, angry -- anything at all but a tepid mental puzzle about the Duke of Dull who was shot to death in a locked room with 12 rich layabouts.

Do you ever worry about being dismissed as too preachy? Or too political?

I try hard not to preach directly. Every attitude is embodied in a character, and I guarantee you there are people with those attitudes. Streets on Fire probably featured just about every attitude you could have in America regarding race, from virulent religious bigots to biker thug racists to Black Nationalists to subtler suburban discriminators. It may not be popular to read about this, but to me race is the great unfinished business of America and the central moral drama of Western Civilization. How could it not be exciting? No one ever complains when Milan Kundera or Czeslaw Milosz incorporates politics. Or when José Saramago or J.M. Coetzee writes emblematic parables. I just want 10 per cent of the scope that they're allowed.

City of Strangers has racked up all sorts of critical acclaim. How are its sales doing?

I've been lucky -- my reviews have usually been fairly kind. I usually get starred reviews in Booklist and Publishers Weekly. In fact Booklist chose this latest, City of Strangers, as one of their top-10 crime novels of the year. Sales aren't doing badly, but nothing spectacular. In fact, The Orange Curtain probably did a bit better for a time. I was lucky enough that time to get glowing reviews from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune on the same day, and The Wall Street Journal a week later. So it went platinum briefly and spent two weeks on the L.A. Times bestseller list. City of Strangers is doing well, but at the moment, the main problem is my lack of a paperback publisher, which I need to help slowly build up a following. It's hard to get far with hardcovers alone, especially as all the early Liffeys are now out of print.

With six books to your credit, do you think the series is gaining a certain critical mass of support?

I wish I could say "yes," but I do really need to get them all into paperbacks. And I need some kind of unfathomable break that you can never predict. Why did James Lee Burke become a mega-seller while the equally good Daniel Woodrell languishes, at least relatively? Why did it take so long for people to discover George Pelecanos? I'll just have to keep writing and hope something happens.

Do you think that City of Strangers might be your "breakout book," the one that makes readers finally sit up and take notice?

Well, that would be nice, but I don't really see my books as hugely different from one another. I think they are all of a piece, part of the continuing tale of a man of good will doing his best to keep it together in an ambiguous world and a troubled city, with a wonderful growing rebellious daughter [Maeve]. [They're] written as well as I can [make them], and full of surprises each time.

Ironically, City of Strangers ends with quite a bang. Were you intending, at least at some point in your writing, to make that Jack Liffey's final appearance?

I finished the first draft at a time when I didn't have a publisher and, to tell the truth, I was so pissed off, I toyed with ending it right there. I'm glad you spotted that -- almost no one notices that the last sentence suggests he's dying. Of course, there's always Reichenbach Falls and miraculous escapes. (Paco Ignacio Taibo II once brought his dead protagonist back to life in a new book, without even explaining it, and people in the tale keep joking about him being dead.) Actually, I'm pretty sure Jack Liffey survived, since I've written two more books, though he bears some damage from that ending. I think Jack will have a long and eventful life, and maybe his daughter actually will become part of Liffey and Liffey.

How do your books do outside of the States?

The French editions seem to be getting great reviews, but it's probably too soon to know about England, Germany and Japan.

What do you think is the appeal of American hard-boiled crime fiction to Europeans?

It's been said that Monty Python rediscovered Marx Brothers humor and gave it back to us. Perhaps we have rediscovered the French component of noir fiction and they recognize it. Also, I'm sure the French respond to a certain exoticism of the American setting. But they also respond to the underlying existential drama of an individual taking action in the world in order to define himself. My French translator, Jean-Francois Le Ruyet, has come over here twice now, and I have shown him all the sites he has written about and we have become good friends. He's also a legal scholar and indomitable Breton. I'm going there soon, and I hope to get a tour in exchange. I'll have to ask him what the French see in American noir fiction.

How did you go about creating your detective protagonist? And to what extent is Jack Liffey based on you?

It should be obvious that to some degree the character of Jack Liffey is based on me, but saying that really trivializes the writing process. I'm [also] laid-off from aerospace tech writing, I live in the condo complex where I describe him living, he drives not my car but the car a woman friend owns, he has some of the same friends I do, he's a bit grumpy about the existential dilemmas of life, et cetera. But then, I don't have a daughter, or a Vietnam background, or even the meager detecting skills or courage that he has. All the characters in everything I've written are based on my thoughts, my dreams, my feelings and my disappointments -- but that's just the raw material of fiction.

I've tried to make Jack Liffey the kind of man who, if [he's] forced to, can confront late-20th-century America head on and survive -- just. Some of him is me, some I wish were, and some I'm glad isn't.

So far, Gary Phillips' Ivan Monk, Mike Davis and even Chandler's Philip Marlowe (older and even crankier than Jack) have popped up in your books. Who's next?

A Paiute Indian cop who falls in love with Jack. But that's not a model from life, is it? Too much epistemology for me.

Tell me, what advice would you give to beginning writers?

Find something you really want to say, look into the subject, and then read the best fiction available and steal what looks like it works (as long as you redigest it) -- Shakespeare did.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to the people who read this interview?

Funny you should ask. When I was a kid, about 9 or so, I was in the local supermarket with my mother, and my eye caught on a new magazine with the words, "An important message from the publishers inside!" splashed across the cover. Inside was this drawing of three or four men kneeling in supplication under the talk-balloon, "Please buy this magazine!" I burst out laughing in the store. It was issue number one of MAD, and I begged my mom for a quarter or whatever it cost then. So my answer is: Please buy my books!

Thanks, John. And I hope you sell a skedillion copies of City of Strangers. Or at least don't end up in jail.

What, me worry? | August 2003


Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently in the Los Angeles area, using the Jack Liffey novels as guidebooks. And he's come to the conclusion that L.A. is even more surreal that Jack thinks it is ...